Many military families are struggling in the era of Covid
In the last eight months, Lindsay Hartmann has endured a bout with Covid-19, a job loss and a cross-country move.
Uncertainty has long been a part of her life as the spouse of a military member. Yet this year has been different.
"It has been really challenging," said Hartmann, 38, who now resides in Pensacola, Florida, with her active-duty Marine husband and her two children, ages 4 and 2.
It all began in mid-March, when she, her husband and her mother were diagnosed with the coronavirus. They recovered after about two weeks and she returned to work as the director of development for a small theatre in San Diego, only to be let go a short time later.
Meanwhile, her husband had orders to report to Pensacola in June. Yet they weren't sure if it was going to happen because of the stop movement order that was issued in March, which essentially froze travel for all military personnel.
"We were freaking out," Hartmann said.
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In late May, the stop move order was lifted. In June, the couple bought their first house together near the base in Pensacola.
Hartmann is still searching for a fundraising job, although she recently took on part-time contract work.
Fortunately, Hartmann and her husband started paying down bills after they got married, even existing on $20 a week each at one point, and are now debt-free. The couple's home expenses, including the mortgage, are covered by the military's housing allowance. However, Hartmann loves her career and wants to work.
"I have continuously looked," she said. "I have applied for so many jobs."
High spousal unemployment
Hartmann's situation is similar to many military families across the country. Even in a so-called normal economy, military spouses have a hard time finding work, since they move so often. Pre-Covid, they faced a 24% unemployment rate, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
The coronavirus has compounded that.
While there are no official numbers that reflect the situation now, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence, said Jennifer Davis, government relations deputy director at the National Military Family Association.
"We've heard from a lot of military spouses that they have lost their jobs due to Covid, similar to the rest of the nation," she said.
Then there are those who may have opted to leave the workforce to care for their children, since schools and childcare centers closed after the pandemic struck.
"Due to the inflexibility of military service, meaning the service member can't be the one to stay home with virtual learning, all of that has fallen on the spouse," said certified financial planner Tara Falcone, founder of the financial education company ReisUP. She is also married to a U.S. Naval officer.
"That is going to have detrimental effects on military families for years to come."
That's what Monica Fullerton, 30, is struggling with right now.
Luckily, she is still employed. In fact, she's working multiple jobs — her full-time, remote one at a software company and a demanding side gig as the founder of Spouse-ly, which is a shopping site for military and veteran spouse- and service member-owned businesses. She is also parenting and teaching her twin 4-year-old boys.
"I'm very overwhelmed," said Fullerton, who has been living in Ohio with family for the past two months while her new house is being built in Las Vegas. Her active-duty Air Force husband, Myles, remained in Nevada.
"I was honestly at my breaking point just being alone there," she said, referring to Las Vegas and her husband's busy work schedule.
Fullerton is set to return to home soon and plans to take it one day at a time. She may put the twins back in pre-school, depending on the status of the virus.
Since the military has started allowing families to move again, they are doing just that. Yet traveling still may be a little more difficult and pricey, Falcone said.
"It has become very, very expensive for military families to move and if you are not aware of how much and what the military will reimburse you for, you could be on the bad end of that bill at the end of the day," said Falcone, who just completed a move from Rhode Island to San Diego.
For instance, the government will pay for hotel stays but not nights at an AirBNB, she said. There are also restrictions for pets on airlines that are making it "nearly impossible" and costly.
Generally, military members have job security and health care and their income has been minimally affected, Davis acknowledged.
However, in addition to their unique issues — such as deploying during Covid and having overseas missions extended — they may also be in for a shock come January.
Military members were not able to opt out of the payroll tax holiday, Falcone pointed out. That means they saw a bump of 6.2% in their paycheck starting in September, which will be lost when the deferral expires at the end of the year.
"If you are not tracking that change in your income appropriately, if you are not earmarking those dollars for future use because your income will be lower in the first four months of the year, then you may be in a bad cash-flow position come the beginning of the year," Falcone said.
Those who are living overseas may also be seeing a pay cut since they get a cost-of-living adjustment, which is tied to the local economy, Davis noted. If the economy in the country in which they are stationed is struggling and the cost of living dips, so does their compensation.
What can be done
From a policy perspective, help can come in the form of a work opportunity tax credit for companies that hire military spouses. Currently, they are not a target group for the tax credit, Davis said.
She'd also like to see an expansion of states that recognize licensing from other states so that spouses can move seamlessly from one place to the next.
More than 30% of military spouses work in fields that require a license, Davis said. More than $12,000 of income is lost per year by spouses trying to relicense or find work in a new state, according to the Military Family Association.
"We're trying to take a thoughtful approach to comprehensive legislation and really try to get the needle moved on this incredibly high unemployment rate," Davis said.
For those trying to financially survive the crisis, Falcone said it's important to be incredibly diligent about managing your cash flow.
"Assign every dollar that is coming in a job," she said. "Prioritize your financial obligations and responsibilities above any wants that you may have."
Pay your bills on time as much as you can and don't take on more debt. Also, try to increase your income by taking up a side hustle, like delivering food, Falcone suggested.
"Any way you can make an extra buck to offset those increase costs will help you weather the storm right now," she said.
Lastly, always prepare for unforeseen circumstances. That means you should try to build up an emergency fund.
A silver lining?
One positive may emerge from the crisis, experts agreed. Companies may be turning more towards fully remote work. That means jobs could open up for spouses — and with them, some stability.
"It allows a military spouse to stay with a company or a business longer," Davis said. "It helps his or her ability to be vested whatever employee based retirement program.
"So it builds long-term retirement security."
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