A new federal law lets military spouses with professional licenses transfer them across state lines
The law’s backers say it will cut red tape so spouses can continue their careers without interruption. But it’s not clear yet exactly how the law will work or how states will comply.
Military families get orders to change duty stations every few years. For Beth Basham, that’s meant four moves over the last decade, as the Air Force ordered her husband from Germany to Hawaii to Wyoming and now, Colorado.
Basham, a dietician, said license requirements for medical nutrition therapy can differ dramatically across the country, and the wait time for a new state license can be nerve wracking.
“Here I am, a spouse who wants to gain employment as soon as she arrives in her new location to prevent that gap in income,” Basham said. “Depending on the state that you are moving to, the credentialing process may or may not take a significant period of time.”
About five years ago, Basham moved from Hawaii — where dieticians didn’t need a license — to Wyoming, where they do. She had a job lined up at a local hospital, but had to wait about three months for Wyoming to license her.
Over a third of active-duty spouses like Basham are employed in fields that require state licensure, according to data collected by the Department of Defense. Gaps in employment are common.
“It's just a condition of employment that my employer either has to accept and say, ‘Okay, we'll wait for you,’ or, ‘No, we need to move to another candidate because we need this position filled ASAP,’” Basham said.
At the beginning of the year, President Joe Biden signed legislation that overhauls professional licenses for military families. States are now required to recognize valid licenses from every other state, including physician licenses.
The law’s backers say it will cut down on red tape and delays so spouses can get to work right away in their new locations. But it’s not clear yet exactly how the law will work or how states will comply.
“[Military spouses] don't have to wait to get an appointment with this certification board or that credential board,” said Congressman Mike Garcia, a California Republican who sponsored the bill. “They don't have to pay the fees for getting a new certification or credential, so that they do have the option to come in and work right away.”
Garcia said the law supersedes state license transfer processes for all professionals except lawyers.
“It's akin to the laws that say, if you have a drivers license from Arkansas, and you go to Michigan on orders, that drivers license should be recognized,” Garcia said.
Even before the new law passed, some states had reciprocity agreements for certain professions like nursing, making license transfers easier within that group of states.
“The problem we had was they weren't moving fast enough,” Garcia said of the interstate compacts. “So rather than allowing 50 states to move at their own speed with their own standards… we just said, ‘Hey, we'll make this easy, we’ll compel you to do it, and licenses across state lines are now recognized.’”
The challenge is to make sure that military families know to rely on the new law when they’re transferring licenses — and make sure states are complying.
Advocates for military families say the law could be a game-changer.
“This is an incredible attempt to really, holistically, once and for all, address the challenges that military spouses and military families have had for a long time,” said Meredith Smith, deputy director for government relations at the National Military Family Association.
But Smith has questions about exactly how the law will play out.
“Now that the law is passed, how do [military spouses] communicate with the respective licensing authority that they're going to that this federal law exists?” Smith said. “How do the states operate within that? And I think that that's what remains to be seen, because we don't see what that implementation mechanism looks like.”
Garcia said he’s working to get dedicated resources to advertise the law to service members and train people on military bases on how to use it to help troops and their spouses. The law does not spell out penalties if states don’t accept or transfer a license, and there’s no direction on how to implement it.
Garcia said it’s on the states and their licensing boards’ to comply. So far, he said he hasn’t received any pushback.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.