Austin pledges to 'ease the load' for service members Published Sept. 22, 2022 By C. TODD LOPEZ, DOD NEWS WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- The Defense Department today laid out an array of efforts — some already underway and some on the horizon — that address the needs of married service members and their families, as well as single service members. In a memo titled "Taking Care of Our Service Members and Families," Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III outlined those efforts in greater detail, saying that taking care of people is a critical component of defending the nation. Tech. Sgt. Billy Lofton, a noncommissioned officer in charge of plans with 325th Security Forces Squadron, shows his family how to operate an unmanned ground vehicle at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., April 29, 2022. Lofton’s family participated in the family carnival event celebrating the Month of the Military Child. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zachary Nordheim) Photo Details / Download Hi-Res "The Department of Defense has a sacred obligation to take care of our service members and families," Austin wrote in the memo. "Doing so is a national security imperative. Our military families provide the strong foundation for our force, and we owe them our full support." As a former Army officer himself and onetime vice chief of staff of the Army, Austin said he's aware of the challenges faced by service members and their families, and he's made taking care of people a priority for his tenure as the defense secretary. "I have seen firsthand how much our military families sacrifice to keep our force strong, healthy, and ready to defend this exceptional nation," Austin said. "In the face of challenges and frustrations, our families show incredible resilience." The memo spells out efforts across four areas deemed most critical to service members and their families. These include: -Securing affordable basic needs. -Making moves easier. -Strengthening support to families, especially for such things as childcare. -Expanding military spouse employment. Among service members' most basic needs are housing and food, and DoD has efforts underway to ensure service members and their families can afford those things, Austin said. "Our service members and families must be able to secure affordable basic needs," he said. "It is a matter of bedrock, financial security and a critical, individual readiness issue." Among the efforts is a review of the prospective 2023 basic allowance for housing rates to ensure they reflect the unusual fluctuations in the housing market. Additionally, in the 28 areas the DoD has identified as having a more than 20% spike in rental housing costs above BAH, the secretary has directed automatic increases in BAH. Those increases will happen automatically for the service members affected and will begin in October. Austin also wrote in the memorandum that he has directed the DoD to fully fund installations' commissaries to cut food prices for service members. As part of that effort, Austin said his goal will be to ensure that prices at commissaries achieve at least a 25% savings on grocery bills compared to what's available on the local economy. Finally, Austin said that starting in January, some eligible service members will get an additional allowance in their paycheck — the "basic needs allowance." The supplemental allowance will be provided to those who qualify based on their gross household income. According to Jeri Busch, director of military compensation policy, the basic eligibility criteria for that allowance includes service members and their families with a gross household income below 130% of the federal poverty level. "The allowance is designed to bring them back up to that level, and so the amount will vary according to their gross household income," Busch said. Financial Aid for Moves Military families are required to move often, Austin said, and those moves disrupt both family life and the social lives and schooling of children, as well. In the memo, Austin laid out several efforts underway to ensure that required permanent changes of station, or PCS moves, don't cause financial burdens on families that may already be strapped for cash. One effort directed by the secretary is an extension of temporary lodging expenses from 10 to 14 days. The temporary lodging expense covers the cost of temporary housing for service members and their families while they look for a home at their new duty station. Also, part of the plan is to extend the temporary lodging expense coverage to up to 60 days if a service member has moved to an area that is known to have housing shortages. The secretary has also directed an increase in the dislocation allowance for service members below the paygrade of E-6. This allowance, expected to be paid a month prior to a PCS move, helps offset any out-of-pocket expenses associated with the move. Changes to both the temporary lodging expenses and the dislocation allowance are expected to happen in October. Childcare Assistance Nikkia Reed, a Child Development Center child and youth program assistant, interacts with a child in a classroom at the CDC Annex at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, Aug. 25, 2022. (U.S. Air Force photo by Jonathan Mallard) Photo Details / Download Hi-Res "We must continue to push hard to provide even more affordable childcare options for military families," Austin said. "Military child development centers have extended their hours to provide additional coverage for our service members to account for the varied schedules of military service. The department has reached out to additional high-quality, community-based childcare providers who agree to provide care for military families using our fee-assistance program." To further help military families secure quality childcare, Austin has directed increased investment across the department in child development program facilities and infrastructure to expand capacity. The secretary has also asked the Defense Department to standardize a minimum 50% employee discount for the first child of direct-care workers employed within the child development program so the program will attract more staff and increase childcare capacity. The DoD last year kicked off a pilot program that provides free assistance to military families with unusual work schedules. The program allows those families to have in-home childcare during hours when they might not be at home, including nights or weekends. The pilot program covers full-time, in-home care for a minimum of 30 hours and a maximum of 60 hours per week. The initial implementation of the that pilot program was limited to just five locations around the United States, but Austin has directed its expansion to additional states in order to provide more options to military families. The department also plans to improve access to the Military Child Care in Your Neighborhood program as well. Spouse Employment Many military families, like most civilian families, need both partners working in order to make ends meet. Due to the number of moves a family must endure over the course of a military career, it's often a challenge for a service member's civilian partner to find sustained, meaningful employment. Part of Austin's commitment to taking care of people involves ensuring that military spouses can find meaningful, sustained work so they can contribute to the well-being of the family. "Military spouses provide the strong foundation upon which their loved ones in uniform stand — and our communities and our nation rely on their resilience," Austin said. "We owe them our energetic, unwavering support." To support the efforts of military spouses to find and maintain employment, the DoD has several initiatives underway, including acceleration of the development of seven additional interstate compacts on occupational licenses in multiple professions. That effort will ease the burden on military spouses who struggle finding work because licenses required for their jobs don't transfer when they move from one state to another. Before a spouse could start looking for work in new duty location, for instance, he or she might need to apply for — and possibly pay for — a new license in a different state. Spouses are unable to work while they wait to obtain sometimes-costly new licenses or credentials. Austin also directed the DoD to increase the use of noncompetitive, direct-hiring authorities and expand remote-work and telework options. He also ordered the DoD to launch a new pilot initiative in January to provide military spouses with paid private-sector fellowships in a variety of career paths. Finally, Austin has directed the number of partners in the Military Spouse Employment Partnership program to increase by 10% before the beginning of 2023. Currently, more than 540 government organizations, nonprofits and private sector companies have made a commitment to the DoD to recruit, hire, promote and retain military spouses as part of the MSEP program. In October, the program expects to add an additional 70 partners. "These actions reflect the department's sacred obligation to honor and support our service members and families," Austin said. "We remain profoundly committed to doing right by our military families, just as our military families remain profoundly committed to their loved ones and to the nation that they all do so much to defend."