When Haley Grantham moved to Miramar, California, she didn’t run into a glass ceiling. She ran into a brick wall.
Grantham had been a prosecutor in Florida for two years. When her husband, a Marine Corps pilot, was given orders to California, she found the process to get barred in that state to be extensive, she said.
In addition to passing the exam, she would need to complete a moral character review. The state bar’s website says that alone takes a minimum of six months. The Granthams would only be there for one year. Instead of pursuing a license in California, she tried to get ahead of the game and get a temporary license in South Carolina, their next destination. But that agency requires the applicant to physically reside in the state.
Frustrated and seekingsome semblance of a career, Grantham made herself sit down and apply for five jobs each day, she said. In the end, she threw in for more than 100 positions.
“I was applying on any platform I could find and for any job I could find that I was remotely qualified for,” she said.
Military spouse unemployment rate runs high
Grantham is one of tens of thousands of military spouses who have paid hundreds of dollars out of pocket, or flat-out given up a career, because of red tape surrounding professional licenses in states. More than 50% of military spouses work in a field that requires a license or certification, according to Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans & Military Families.
Military spouses, more than 90% of whom are women, often put their careers on the back burner because of their unspoken oath to America. Even before the pandemic, estimates put the unemployment rate of military spouses between three and six times the national rate.
But bills introduced in Congress by Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, would help ease that burden by allowing licenses issued by one state to be considered valid in the state to which the spouse or service member has been relocated on military orders. The House version, which has 25 co-sponsors, has been referred to a subcommittee within the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. If passed, the bill would impact all professional licenses, including those required to work as a real estate agent, teacher and nurse.
Most states have some flexibility for military spouses who need to transfer professional licenses, experts say, but it’s a patchwork of exemptions for each industry. The Department of Defense has been working on the issue since 2011, and 26 states have agreed to at least issuing a license to a military spouse within 30 days with little upfront paperwork, according to Marcus Beauregard, director of the Defense-State Liaison Office. A congressional bill would create uniformity, advocates say.
A bill to bolster military spouse employment
Garcia said the change would affect larger issues within the military: He believes that giving more opportunities to spouses would improve retention and make some bases more desirable.
“It’s actually a hard sell right now to get these active-duty folks to take orders to some of these states and locations, especially when the spouse is having a hard time getting the credentials for whatever line of work they’re in,” Garcia said.
The issue presents itself overseas as well. Nicole Lewis, a registered nurse and Navy spouse, said she wasn’t able to work when she was living on a Marine base in Iwakuni, Japan.
“As if moving away from your family and friends to a foreign country isn’t hard enough, employment opportunities for spouses are scarce,” Lewis, said. “Not being able to work stripped me of a part of my identity and took away something from me that I worked very hard for and am very proud of.”
Because of how time-consuming it is to get a new nursing license in each state, she has held on to the ones she received in Virginia and Alabama. For each, she pays about $100 in renewal fees every two years, she said. That came in handy when her husband deployed for the third time in three years. In 2020, she moved back from Japan to Alabama to work in a surgical intensive care unit that turned into an overflow ICU for COVID-19 patients. Now the Navy has moved them to Nevada, she said, and she has obtained her third nursing license in less than five years.
Trouble building seniority amid frequent moves
Educators can run into similar problems.
“There’s a big teacher shortage. Huge. Every state is looking for teachers,” said Phillip Rogers, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC).
One big issue with teachers who move from state to state, Rogers said, is that they cannot build up seniority with respect to pay. Some states require three years of teaching done continuously in one state or district in order to be considered “experienced.” That’s difficult to build up if the military is moving your family every few years, he said.
Professional groups like NASDTEC and Military Spouse JD Network have been working for years with states to try to create interstate compacts that give reciprocity to teachers and lawyers, respectively.
Lucy Sinkular, a lawyer who is a part of the New Mexico Military Spouse JD Network, said 41 states have laws on the books that allow exemptions for lawyers who are military spouses. New Mexico is not one of them.
Sinkular’s husband recently retired from the Army, but she continues to push for her state to join the others. She is hopeful that future generations of military spouses will enjoy fulfilling careers — something she had, but not to the full extent she might have enjoyed.
Sinkular first took the bar exam in New Mexico in 1995 and also got barred in Nebraska, her home state. She said she knew she would have to re-take the bar exam again if either license went inactive, so she paid the fees each time they were up for renewal. As they moved to Ohio, Florida, Germany, Pennsylvania and Virginia, she did contract work for law firms in Nebraska and New Mexico. Her career path didn’t have the upward mobility it would have if she had stayed in one place, she said.
“I did not become a partner. I didn’t hold an important job in public interest law or for a city or state,” Sinkular said. “You know, I didn’t really accomplish something in an outwardly measured, ‘Wow, she’s really successful’ kind of way.”
Supporting women’s careers
Ayren Pfeifer, a real estate agent and military spouse, said the issue highlights a “weakness in the military that isn’t discussed enough.” Because a majority of military spouses are women, it is the men who pursue career work and the wives who put careers aside if those two don’t mesh.
“Why, after so much cultural change in our country, has the military not evolved with the rest of society?” she asked. “The expectation for military spouses to give up any hope for a career to support their active-duty spouses is counterproductive to the modern family. We are no longer living in a patriarchal society where it’s expected that women stay home.”
When Pfeifer’s family moved to California, she continued to operate her South Carolina real estate business remotely while she worked to get her license in San Diego. She said that is what got her through a dark time of finding a new home, prepping for a deployment and helping her teens acclimate to a new state. Being able to work as a military spouse shouldn’t require “hurdle after hurdle after hurdle,” she said.
“It is maddening to me because it’s only logical that when the spouse is happy and fulfilled, he or she is a better spouse, a better parent and they contribute financially. How could that not affect retention?” Pfeifer said. “A few simple changes will transcend the emotional welfare of the United States military and their families.”
Garcia said he thinks the bill has a better chance of passing than previous bills did. He doesn’t have an idea of when its fate will be known, but it could come any time in the remaining year and a half of the current session.
“Now we’re at the mercy of the VA committee to do their due diligence and bring it to the floor for a vote,” Garcia said. “As toxic as everything has been over the past couple of years and as partisan as everything has been, I think the American people are looking for issues like this to support.”