FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (AP) - Military spouses who leave their jobs because of the frequent moves required in the military would be eligible for unemployment benefits under proposed bill in Tennessee that has the support of the governor.
The bill sponsored by state Sen. Tim Barnes and state Rep. Joe Pitts of Clarksville passed the Senate on Thursday after Gov. Bill Haslam included $280,000 for the bill in his 2012-2013 fiscal year budget proposal. The House version has not yet been put to a vote.
With thousands of soldiers based at Fort Campbell, Ky., on the Tennessee line, the two Democratic lawmakers have spent months advocating for the bill and making visits to the installation to hear directly about the needs of military families.
"We realized that Tennessee was one of only 11 states that did not offer those unemployment benefits and being from the Fort Campbell/Clarksville area that was an embarrassment to me," said Barnes this week.
Their efforts paid off when the Republican governor included the necessary funding that had previously been a sticking point.
Under current rules, if a person voluntarily leaves a job in Tennessee, they are not eligible for unemployment benefits. But Barnes said these spouses don't have a choice if the military assigns a soldier to a new unit or location.
"This just recognizes that this is not voluntary, if you want to move with your spouse, you have to do that," he said.
The state estimates about a third of military personnel are transferred each year, which means more than 3,000 spouses in Tennessee have to move their families to follow their soldiers to a new military post, according to the fiscal note attached to the bill.
They estimate that there could be about 73 claims a year averaging around $3,819 per claimant.
Sophia Davis, a 23-year-old wife of a soldier, had to resign from her job as a child abuse and neglect investigator when her husband got orders to move from Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri to Fort Campbell last year. Since then she hasn't been able to find a job, despite having a bachelor's degree in social work.
"It's definitely difficult because I would have liked to stay at the job I was at and not have to move. But you marry into the military, so you get used to it," she said.
She thinks that employers may be reluctant to hire her because her husband will likely get orders to move again within a couple of years.
"I am nervous to tell people that I am a military spouse, because then people know that you're not going to be there very long," she said.
Pitts, who is a banker, said military spouses have told him that it's hard for them to build their careers because the frequent moves set them back.
"They are not in one place long enough to build seniority, so typically they have to start at the bottom of the pay scale," he said.
Sharon Edwards, Army Community Services employment readiness team leader at Fort Campbell, Ky., said her office helps spouses find jobs, gives assistance on writing resumes and provides tips on how to best qualify for available positions. She said many spouses are overqualified for entry level positions that are more abundant around Fort Campbell.
"A good number of our spouses have bachelor's degrees or master's degrees," she said.
The ACS office invites employers to the post regularly to highlight open jobs and talk about what skills employers are looking for. There are also some opportunities available for military spouses to get training in areas of nursing, teaching and tax preparation that are more portable careers.
Military families have been equally hit hard by the recession, said Edwards.
"I would say there are more spouses working today due to the change in the economy," she said. "Because in the past, you were able to survive off the one income."
Kelly Edmond, another Fort Campbell military spouse, said she sought help from the ACS office to find a job and volunteer work after moving to Fort Campbell in 2004. Now she's studying to get her bachelor's degree in social work using her husband's education benefits through the GI Bill, but they struggled in their first years at Fort Campbell.
"We were living paycheck to paycheck, not paying certain bills just to make it work to get food," she said.
The unemployment funds for this bill if passed will be taken from the General Fund and the claims won't have a negative effect on the employers, according to Pitts. "All we are trying to do is provide them with a means to support their family during their transition," said Pitts.