Navigating Barriers for Military Spouses Working Overseas

By Lytaria B. Walker, Directorate of Prevention, Resilience and ReadinessJune 26, 2024

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

One in five military spouses is unemployed— nearly four times the national unemployment rate—according to data collected independently by the Defense Department and the Military Spouses Chamber of Commerce.

While many civilians can relocate to take an attractive job offer or gain notice in a more promising market, military spouses must make do where they are—no matter how remote the location or sparse the opportunities. Nearly half of military spouses (45%) consider themselves underemployed, working in professional capacities well below their education, expertise and experience.

For those accompanying their active-duty spouse on a permanent change of station to a foreign country, gainful employment is further complicated by the status of forces agreement. A SOFA defines the legal protections of Soldiers and their dependents in the country where they are stationed. The complexity of the agreement—in which the host country, the U.S. Senate and departments of Defense and State all play a part—can be daunting for military Families facing sudden financial insecurity.

Beth Conlin, chairwoman of the MSCC board, says that SOFA has been a long-standing barrier for military spouses seeking to understand, much less exercise, employment rights in foreign countries. Conlin is now part of a movement gaining steam to speak plainly about the ways SOFAs govern spousal employment in host countries.

“For decades we’ve been told (SOFA) is an obstacle to employment,” she says. “It turns out that isn’t the case; we just didn’t have the right information.”

One misconception is that military spouses must work in a foreign country under their SOFA status. But if a spouse’s employer will sponsor a work visa and can facilitate a transfer overseas, then a SOFA has no bearing on employment. Conlin encourages military spouses to check with current and prospective employers about the potential to work internationally in preparation for a PCS order.

The situation is trickier for self-employed spouses, as the legal requirements vary from one country’s SOFA to the next. The Army Community Service or Judge Advocate General’s office at the installation in the host country would have more information on how to navigate the red tape.

Conlin emphasizes that SOFA operates as a visa, granting permission to reside within the host country; contrary to another long-circulated belief, it does not affect base access, health care and other vital activities.

With the rise of remote/virtual work and an increasing dependence on dual-income households, demystifying SOFA has gained traction in and out of government. In June 2023, President Biden issued an executive order encompassing several initiatives to boost military-spouse employment. Two months later, the American Bar Association adopted a resolution urging the Defense and State departments to provide “clear restatements of the current rules” under SOFAs to make the guidance easier to follow.

“Because of that executive order,” Conlin says, “there is an office right now working on a memo detailing clear guidance so that military spouses can take this guidance to their employers and say, ‘See, the SOFA is not going to affect my ability to work. Can you support me overseas?’”

A model for what clear guidance might look like arose last year in an unlikely place—Italy, which Conlin says had been notoriously difficult about its employment policies for over a decade. An exchange of letters between Italy and the State Department outlined the types of permissible work on the Italian economy and included more than 50 frequently asked questions.

“It’s a fantastic description of how you can work while you’re in Italy,” Conlin says. “What kind of work—consulting, product selling? Can I practice law? Can I do fitness coaching? Everything about taxes, buying supplies. (It has) anything you would ever need to know about working overseas.”

The Italian breakthrough is encouraging to Conlin, whose own painful job-loss experience as a military spouse inspired a commitment to help other military Families.

“I really do appreciate the Army bringing awareness to the challenges of the SOFA,” she says. “I hope conversations like these can help remove this barrier for future military spouses as they head overseas.”