'I feel like we’re punished': Military spouses face employment barriers when their families relocate
Spouses who work in professions that require state licenses often hit roadblocks when they move to a new state. A few states are trying to streamline the licensing process.
For military spouse Atiya Nathan, a mental health therapist, it took five months to obtain a professional license from the state of Mississippi after the Navy transferred her husband there.
Even though Nathan was already licensed in their previous home, Virginia, she had to start the process over in her new state. She started to panic as the clock ticked.
“It's so isolating, because you're thinking like, ‘I have to get this license,’” she said. “I cannot work to my full capacity unless I get this license.”
She filled out forms, took exams, paid fees, and called the Mississippi licensing board, sometimes twice a day.
“Mississippi has different requirements than Virginia has, so it's not a level playing field,” Nathan said.
Her story is common among military families. It's part of the reason that unemployment among military spouses is higher than the rest of the public.
Nathan eventually got her Mississippi license and started her own counseling practice. But she can treat patients only in the two states where she’s licensed as a clinical social worker: Virginia and Mississippi. She expects the military will order her family to move again in 2023, which has her thinking about how — and where — she’ll have to pivot her career next.
“I do have a private practice that I can take anywhere with me,” she said. “But I also want to have the opportunity to actually set up shop somewhere because everyone doesn't want virtual therapy, nor do I think it's the best modality for everyone.”
The list of professions that can require a state license is long — real estate agents, interior designers and even hypnotists. For military spouses who frequently pick up and move on short notice, transferring a professional license can mean several months without income while the new state processes the application.
Some states, like Connecticut, have passed laws to expedite that process.
“Just like your family is required to be portable in the military, we want your professional life to be portable,” said Connecticut Director of Military Affairs Bob Ross. Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Connecticut is home to more than 6500 active-duty and reserve military personnel.
A Connecticut law that takes effect this month offers military spouses with out-of-state professional licenses a shortcut to getting licensed. The law will affect dozens of professions across health care, the building trades, and other industries.
“If they have been working in that profession in another state, and they have a license from another state and they're in good standing, this law directs the commissioners that do licensing to accept their license and let them get back to work,” Ross said, noting a background check is also required, and some applicants might still have to take a “basic” test.
At the bill signing ceremony in August, Gov. Ned Lamont said he hoped the law would make life easier for military families who get stationed in Connecticut.
“It is cumbersome as heck,” he said. “You’ve got 50 different states, 50 different licensing mechanisms.”
Ross said Connecticut is also exploring whether it can enter into reciprocal agreements with other states.
“One of the things that's embedded at the end of that law is setting up working groups to investigate interstate compacts, where we can get into an agreement with another state that says, ‘If you recognize our licenses, we’ll recognize your licenses,’” Ross said.
Several states have created compacts for certain professions, but those typically cover only a specific list of participating states.
Congress is considering a federal law designed to further streamline licensing for service members and spouses. The proposal - part of the annual defense spending package - would require families to provide their new state with a copy of their military transfer orders to expedite the license.
Navy spouse Atiya Nathan says a nationwide policy for seamless license transfers would help the most.
“You’re always trying to think about how to reinvent your career in ways that civilians don’t have to,” Nathan said about being married to a service member. “I feel like we're punished for supporting our spouse.”
She said she often feels like she’s in the shadows. “Thank you for your service, but you can’t make money here," she said. "Thank you for your service, but you can’t pay your bills.”
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.