No Relief in Sight for Military Family Moves Snarled by Pandemic

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U.S. Army soldier supervises the delivery and unpacking of her household items
A U.S. Army soldier supervises the delivery and unpacking of her household items May 11, 2017, on Wheeler Army Airfield in Hawaii. (Photo by Karen A. Iwamoto, Oahu Publications)

Lauren Sanford knew her family's permanent change of station move from a Navy base in Japan to Virginia over the summer would likely be harder due to the pandemic.

Sanford and her husband, a Navy surgeon, had been through overseas PCS moves before. With the coronavirus still causing havoc, they estimated the two months they had waited in the past to finally receive their household goods shipments after moving into a new home would likely stretch into three months in Virginia.

But she wasn't expecting her family, including their 5-year-old and 3-year-old children, would be forced to live four months without any of the trappings of home due to shipping delays.

"We were without our belongings for an extra four weeks beyond what we anticipated," Sanford said. "We're being strung along, and we're being told, 'You're so close, you're so close to receiving your household goods,' when in reality we aren't close and we are being inconvenienced even longer."

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The pandemic delays and worker shortages that have ratcheted up the misery of military family moves, already an arduous process before the chaos of the past two years, likely won't be going away anytime soon, despite a new contract worth up to $20 billion awarded Thursday by U.S. Transportation Command to HomeSafe Alliance LLC of Houston, Texas, aimed at improving the troubled system.

Families could again see delays for moving out and days or weeks longer without their belongings when they arrive at new homes during next summer's peak moving season as the U.S. moving industry girds for continued labor shortages.

"This is not going to improve for 2022," said Katie McMichael, director of the Moving and Storage Conference at American Trucking Associations, which represents the industry. "We need to start thinking of solutions now for how we make 2022 go better, with the understanding that we're still going to have these capacity constraints."

Megan Harless, a military spouse and PCS advocate, said the pandemic has created a "perfect storm" of problems for family household moves.

"It feels like a lot of people are just stuck and there isn't a whole lot you can do, because you can't just make packers appear and make a driver with a truck appear," said Harless, who runs a website with PCS advice. "You can't just snap your fingers and have the port clear and operations moving steadily again."

Some families were forced into a Plan B, where they put belongings into storage themselves until they could be picked up and shipped later, she said.

"A lot of people aren't expecting until late 2022 or early 2023 for these issues to kind of smooth out in some way," Harless said.

The volume of PCS moves began to fully rebound in the summer of 2021, the second peak military moving season during the pandemic after stop-movement orders the previous year. But the network of about 950 independent moving companies that handle household goods shipments struggled to manage the demand after being hit by labor shortages of 20% to 30%.

"Nobody anticipates getting the workforce back in time for the 2022 peak season," McMichael said.

That means the industry will not be able to move as many families per week as it has in the past, and will need to discuss shifting that demand with the military, she said. About 325,000 troops and their families PCS annually.

The persistence of the pandemic has created a deeper hole for the already troubled military moving system. There was widespread dissatisfaction among service members long before the coronavirus caused a lack of workers and ballooning costs for plywood shipping containers.

An online petition drive in 2018 calling for accountability for poor-quality PCS moves quickly drew more than 100,000 signatures. Complaints included missing family heirlooms and a "child's entire room never making it to the final destination," according to four U.S. senators who sent a letter to Transportation Command that year demanding changes in how shipments are tracked and managed.

The command was already planning a major overhaul to its family moves system when the pandemic hit. The Global Household Goods Contract, or GHC, award announced Thursday is the culmination of that effort. It marks a historic shift from military to privatized management of the 950 moving companies that handle global household shipments.

The initial award value is $6.2 billion, but the contract is worth nearly $20 billion including all options and extensions. It was originally awarded to American Roll On Roll Off Carrier Group of New Jersey in April 2020, but that was successfully challenged by HomeSafe Alliance LLC and the original contract was cancelled in October of 2020.

But the landmark contract won't help with the pandemic problems looming next summer, according to Col. Joel Safranek, director of Transportation Command's Defense Personal Property Management Office.

"I'm a believer in that GHC contact, but the reality is it will not be in full swing until the 2023 moving season," he said in a recent interview.

Safranek called the existing household goods shipment system "fractured" and said having a single manager under the new GHC contract can make a "massive difference," citing the military's separate personal vehicle shipping system that is run by a private entity. The vehicle shipping system has a 99% satisfaction rate from customer surveys, while household goods shipments have a 95.5% satisfaction rate.

That means about 13,000 families who took the time to fill out the satisfaction surveys were not happy with their household shipments, he said.

"I don't think the pandemic was the sole reason for things to be bad," Safranek said. "I would argue you go back to that fractured system and our status quo. Our status quo has flaws, and those flaws are being shown right now a little bit more than maybe normal."

The contract is designed to put management in the hands of an entity that the Defense Department can hold accountable, rather than the current system that has Transportation Command trying to manage hundreds of separate companies.

But the long-awaited overhaul to private management could take nearly another two years. It has also been met with some skepticism.

"I was very cautious of it. The idea of it briefs well," Harless said. "Looking at just the general idea and construct of it, it reminds me of privatized housing. We've seen how well that's gone in the military community."

The military privatized 99% of its housing beginning in 1996. That eventually led to families testifying to Congress in 2019 about dangerous living conditions in the privately managed homes, such as mold, rats and lead paint. Two former managers at one private management company responsible for Air Force housing pleaded guilty to falsifying maintenance reports earlier this year.

"Are we going to be back in that same situation but with our household goods instead of our houses?" she said.

Safranek says no. The GHC contract could cover nine years in total if all extensions are signed, but the winning company must meet performance goals in the first three years or the contract can be rebid. That means the military won't necessarily be stuck with a manager that doesn't live up to expectations.

In the meantime, Safranek said the command is making changes ahead of 2023 aimed at improving some of the moving difficulties, such as a new Transportation Command website dashboard showing performance of individual moving companies and more user-friendly satisfaction surveys that can be done easily on cellphones.

However, service members who find they were assigned a moving company with a poor performance record may have limited options to choose another, and the survey changes aren't expected until next year.

Safranek's advice to military families planning to move next year: "Plan, plan and plan."

"Be aware of what's in the news and how it may impact you," he said.

Sanford, the military spouse who moved from Japan this year, began planning for her family's move back to the States after hearing about delays from other spouses. She was able to schedule an earlier pickup of her household goods in Japan in an attempt to compensate, which also meant her family had to live longer out of suitcases before leaving.

Despite the extra effort, the move hit delays that the military had not adequately prepared the family to handle. Their time in Virginia without belongings required spending that was a financial hardship and only eligible for reimbursement later, she said.

Sanford said she's not surprised the outlook for PCS moves next year is just as bleak, and she urged the military and moving companies to communicate that on "every website, every form of communication" to families.

"They're painting a rosy picture, but the reality is not rosy," she said.

-- Travis Tritten can be reached at travis.tritten@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.

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