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Military spouses with certifications face employment barriers when their families are relocated

Many military service members get relocated to a new base every few years, causing headaches for military spouses with their own careers as they try to transfer their professional licenses. Some states, like Connecticut, are trying to streamline that process and ease the burden on working spouses.

“Just like your family is required to be portable in the military, we want your professional life to be portable,” said Bob Ross, Connecticut’s director of military affairs.

A law that takes effect this month offers military spouses with out-of-state professional licenses a shortcut to getting licensed in Connecticut.

On the move

Atiya Nathan said she waited five months for Mississippi to license her as a mental health therapist, even though she already had a license from Virginia. 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 licensing board, sometimes twice a day.

“Mississippi has different requirements than Virginia has, so it's not a level playing field,” Nathan said.

Her husband serves in the Navy, and her story is common among military families. She eventually got her Mississippi license and started her own virtual counseling practice. But she can only treat patients in the two states where she’s licensed as a clinical social worker: Virginia and Mississippi. She expects the military will order them to move again in 2023, which has her thinking about how — and where — she’ll have to pivot her career next.

“Yes, 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 families who frequently pick up and move on short notice, transferring that professional license can mean several months with no income while the new state processes the application. That’s changed in Connecticut.

“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.

Expediting the process

At the bill signing ceremony in August, Governor Ned Lamont said he hoped the law would make life easier for military families who get stationed in Connecticut, which is home to the Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton and over 6,500 active-duty and reserve military personnel.

“It is cumbersome as heck,” he said. “You’ve got 50 different states, 50 different licensing mechanisms.”

The law will affect dozens of professions across health care, the building trades and other industries. Ross said many families — both military and civilian — rely on two incomes, and unemployment among military spouses is higher than the rest of the public.

“Everybody wins,” said Ross, the state’s military affairs director. “The base wins with more productive, happier service members. The military families win because they can afford a better lifestyle and have more disposable income. The local economy wins and the state wins.”

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, comparing it to education compacts that exist for military children who move from school to school. “That will really expedite getting people into the workplace.”

Several states have created compacts for certain professions, and those typically cover only a specific list of participating states.

Filling in the legal patchwork

Congress is considering a federal law designed to further streamline licensing for service members and spouses as part of its annual defense spending package. It 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. 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.
Copyright 2021 WSHU. To see more, visit WSHU.

Desiree D'Iorio
Born and raised in Connecticut, Desiree now calls Long Island home. She is WSHU’s 2019-2020 News Fellow, covering local government, the environment and public affairs on Long Island. She received her A.A. in Communications from Nassau Community College and B.A. in Journalism from Stony Brook University. Her past internships were at the Long Island Press and WSHU. In 2019, she co-wrote a four-part series about the Long Island Pine Barrens, bringing to listeners the sights and sounds of this unique ecosystem nestled in the heart of Suffolk County. There are 300 tabs open across her devices at all times.
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