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Change to Spouse Federal Hiring Preference Awaits Clarification

Tech. Sgt. Cody Andrews and his wife Paula talk with Eva Tukarski, head of the European recruiting office of a military placement firm, during a 2016 Career Expo in Belgium. Visual Information Specialist Pierre-Etienne Courtejoie/Army
Tech. Sgt. Cody Andrews and his wife Paula talk with Eva Tukarski, head of the European recruiting office of a military placement firm, during a 2016 Career Expo in Belgium. Visual Information Specialist Pierre-Etienne Courtejoie/Army

Federal hiring officials are working to clarify whether a military spouse hiring preference change included in a 2016 law is retroactive, a question that could change eligibility for thousands of potential applicants.

The hiring measure, known as PPP-S, allows military spouse dependents to receive preference when applying for a Defense Department federal job after a permanent change-of-station move.

In the past, the preference rule was capped at two years after the report date on the military member's orders to the new location. However, a measure included in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act removed the cap, instead leaving no timeline for the one-time use of the preference.

But the law does not state whether the change is retroactive to any time before the bill was signed in December. That has opened the rule to inconsistent interpretation by hiring managers.

For example, at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, a military spouse reported being permitted to reapply for the preference early this year after her two years expired. But at Fort Rucker in Alabama, an Army spouse, who asked not to be named, was told that the change is not retroactive because the law does not explicitly state that it should be.

"Your PPP eligibility expired in August 2016," she was told in an email from the base's civilian personnel advisory center (CPAC). "There is no provision in the current NDAA to allow for post-dating your eligibility. PPP eligibility from December 23, 2016, will have no two-year expiration date for an excepted appointment."

Allowing the rule to be retroactive would open use of the preference to every military spouse who has moved but not yet used the preference to gain employment through the Pentagon.

Pentagon officials said a clarification on whether the measure is retroactive is in the works with the White House Office of Management and Budget, which sets federal hiring policy. Until then, the Defense Department and individual hiring authorities are giving guidance based on their individual readings of the rule, officials said.

"DoD components/HR servicing activities are providing information based on the plain reading of the new statutory provision," Johnny Michael, a DoD spokesman, said in a statement. "Specifically, that there is no provision in the new statutory authority that provides for retroactive application for purposes of determining eligibility."

The Army spouse said she believes the Fort Rucker decision not to make the rule retroactive is out of fear of a groundswell of applicants.

"What are they afraid of? Are they afraid by not putting the 'December 23rd' limitation, their offices will be inundated from military spouse applications?" she said. "So that would mean more work for CPAC."

By not using the rule retroactively, said Brooke Goldberg, director of military family policy at the Military Officers Association of America, hiring managers are missing the point of the change.

"Clearly, lawmakers felt that the two-year time limit was a barrier to spouses coming employed," she said. "What harm is applying it retroactively going to cause? ... By making it retroactive, we are not promising a job to everyone who becomes eligible. Applying it retroactively meets the original intent of the legislation."

A federal hiring freeze, which also affects most Defense Department hiring and anyone attempting to use the PPP-S preference, is expected to lift in late April.

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at amy.bushatz@military.com.

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