Oy! That Rumor About Foreign Service Family Member Employment as “Corporate Welfare”

Posted: 1:39 am ET
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We posted recently about the hiring freeze, the jobs for diplomatic spouses, and the worries that these jobs could soon be filled not by the U.S. citizen spouses of USG employees overseas but by locally hired employees (see Are #EFM positions literally about to become…extinct under #Tillerson’s watch?).

We have since learned that the Foreign Service community has been roiled by a rumor that the top diplomat of the United States has allegedly called the employment of Foreign Service family members as “corporate welfare” and allegedly said to one of his deputies that this practice is going to stop.

The secretary of state is surrounded by a small number of inner circle staffers like Margaret Peterlin, Christine Ciccone, Matt Mowers and Bill Ingle but his top deputies are currently nowhere in sight in Foggy Bottom as he has no confirmed deputy. Where did this rumor come from?  Was this overheard in the cafeteria, by the water coolers, in Foggy Bottom’s sparkling bathrooms?  We have not been able to trace the origin of this alleged quote, or locate a first hand account of who heard exactly what when.  But since the rumor has raced like wildfire fire within the State Department, and has a potential deleterious effect on morale, we’ve asked the Bureau of Public Affairs via email, and on Twitter to comment about this alleged quote. Unfortunately, we got crickets; we got no acknowledgement that they even received our multiple inquiries, and we’ve seen no response to-date.

Not even smoke signals! Dear Public Affairs, please blink if you’re being held hostage …

via reactiongifs.com

We’ve also asked the Family Liaison Office (FLO), the institutional advocate for Foreign Service family members. The FLO folks also did not respond to our inquiry. Finally, we’ve asked the Director General of the Foreign Service via email. We got a canned response thanking us for our inquiry and advising us that if a response is required, we’ll hear from DGHR within 10 days. Yippee! The DGHR’s office did bother to set up an auto-response and we’re holding our breath for a real response!

H-e-l-p … g-u-l-p …we’re still holding our breath!

Dual Career Households

Foreign Service spouses have similar challenges to military spouses in maintaining dual careers while following their spouses during assignments — have you ever heard our top generals call the jobs for military spouses  “corporate welfare?” Of course not. Why? Because dual career households have been trending up since 1970.  According to a Pew Research Center analysis of Current Population Survey data in 2015, the share of two-parent households in which both parents work full time now stands at 46%, up from 31% in 1970.  “At the same time, the share with a father who works full time and a mother who doesn’t work outside the home has declined considerably; 26% of two-parent households today fit this description, compared with 46% in 1970.” 

So, we were counting on the State Department to set the record straight on what this secretary of state thinks about the family members who serve overseas with our diplomats.  We are unable to say whether this quote is real or not, whether he said this or not but we can tell you that the rumor is doing the rounds and upsetting a whole lot of people.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that a good number of folks within the organization also believe this to be true.

Rumors Uninterrupted. Why?

Well, there are a few reasons we can think of.  One, the White House has now lifted the hiring freeze, but there is no thaw in sight for the State Department until the reorganization plan is approved (see No thaw in sight for @StateDept hiring freeze until reorganization plan is “fully developed”).  Two, we’re hearing all sorts of news about gutting State and USAID budgets and staffing but we have yet to hear about the Secretary of State actually talking to his people in Foggy Bottom or defending the agency that he now leads. And then there’s this: there are apparently over 70 exceptions to the hiring freeze for EFM jobs that have been requested. Only 6 EFM positions for the Priority Staffing Posts (like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan) were reportedly approved by Secretary Tillerson.  PSPs are important to watch as EFMs can only accompany their employee-spouse if they have a job at post. If State only grants exceptions to EFM jobs at PSP posts on the rarest of cases, will employees break their assignments when their EFMs are unable to accompany them?

These EFM jobs, almost all requiring security clearance range from Community Liaison Officers tasked with morale and family member issues to security escorts, minders for the janitorial or repair staff, to mailroom clerks who process mail and diplomatic pouches, to security clerks who process security badges and do other clerical work.  With few exceptions like consular associates who work in the visa sections and professional associates, most of these EFM jobs are  clerical in nature and require no more than a high school education. Some 80% of diplomatic spouses have college degrees but only 29% works inside U.S. missions overseas, 14% works in the local economy and a whopping 57% are not employed.

Let’s pause here for a moment to note that the 57% for the State Department more than double the Pew Research Center analysis of Current Population Survey data from 2015 for two-parent households where the wife does not work outside the home.

Hard Choices Ahead

If the EFM job freeze becomes indefinite, we anticipate that some families with financial obligations for college tuitions or other family obligations may opt for voluntary separation to enable the EFM to keep her/his Civil Service job or stay stateside to keep her/his private sector job. More senior  spouses may also have particular concerns about having jobs/keeping their jobs so we may see an increase in voluntary unaccompanied tours and family separations. Is that something the State Department really wants to do?

Given that the summer rotation is coming up between June and August, how is the State Department going to remedy the staffing gaps at various locations while the EFM hiring freeze is on?  We’ve also asked the State Department this question, but we did not hear anything back, not even a buzz-buzz.  Do you think there is even a plan?

We should note that not all rotations are created equal.  There are posts that may have a light staff rotation this year, while other posts have larger staff turnovers.  Small posts may be hit particularly hard.  Sections with one FSO supported by a couple of EFMs could potentially lose both EFM staffers and be unable to hire new ones because of the hiring freeze.  Meanwhile, the work requirements including all congressionally mandated reporting go on.

One source told us that the main option for his/her post during rotation is to suck up the extra work, and even temporarily reassign the existing staff to higher priority projects. Which means somethings will not/not get done.  There are already posts where one officer has two-three collateral duties, so those are not going to get any better. Visa officers may need to collect fingerprints as well as conduct visa interviews. Unless their jobs get handed over to DHS (yes, there are rumors on that, too!).   Regional Security Officers may need to process embassy badges, and answer their own phones, as well as attend to mission security, supervise the local guards, review contracts, etc.

An Aside — on Rumors

We once wrote about rumors in a dysfunctional embassy.  It now applies to the State Department.  Rumors express and gratify “the emotional needs of the community.” It occupies the space when that need is not meet, and particularly when there is deficient communication between the front office and the rest of the mission.  In the current environment, the rampant rumors circulating within the State Department is indicative of Mr. Tillerson’s deficient communication with his employees.

If State Really Cares About the Costs

In any case, if the State Department no longer even pretends to care that FS spouses are under-employed or not employed overseas, it still ought to care about costs. These are support employees who already have their security clearances, and require no separate housing. It is estimated that there are about 5,000 EFMs who would qualify for the Foreign Service  Family Reserve Corps. A few years ago, we noted that majority of EFMs employed at US mission, at the minimum, have a “Secret” level clearance. The average cost to process a SECRET clearance has been reported to run from several hundred dollars to $3,000, depending on individual factors. We suspect that the cost is higher for FS members due to overseas travels and multiple relocations.  The average cost to process a TOP SECRET clearance is between $3,000 and about $15,000, depending on individual factors. If State gets rid of EFM jobs (already cheap labor compared to direct-hire), the work will still be there.  Or is it planning on hiring contractors to bridge the gap? If yes, these contractors would all have to get through the security clearance process themselves.  State still has to fund contractors’ travel and housing, etc. How would that be cheaper?  Or … if not, who will do all the work?

Tillerson’s 9% Cut and a Troubling Nugget

The latest news from Bloomberg talks about Tillerson reportedly seeking a 9% cut in State Department staffing with majority of the job cuts, about 1,700, through attrition, while the remaining 600 will be done via buyouts (we’ll have to write about this separately).   Oh, and he’ll be on a “listening tour” sometime soon.  Note that during the slash and burn in the 1990’s, the State Department “trimmed” more than 1,100 jobs at the State Department, 600 jobs at  the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), and had identified for elimination about 2,000 jobs at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The Bloomberg report also has this troubling nugget:

“Tillerson was taken aback when he arrived on the job to see how much money the State Department was spending on housing and schooling for the families of diplomats living overseas, according to one person familiar with his thinking.”

So next, we’re gonna to be talking about those houses with concertina wire on top of 18 foot walls?

Since there may not be EFM jobs for diplomatic spouses, and we could soon be back to the old days when American diplomats are accompanied overseas by stay-at-home spouses who make no demands on having careers of their own, who’s to say when dependents’ schooling will next be upgraded to allow only homeschooling, when travel will be made only by paddle boats,  and diplomatic housing will be reduced to yurts?

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NOTE: There are a few EFMs who are hired in Civil Service positions and allowed to telecommute from their locations overseas once they go abroad with their spouses . They’re officially on DETO status (domestic employee telecommuting overseas).  We understand that last year,  one bureau had “pushed out” its EFM employees on DETO status. The employees either had to resign their CS jobs or return to DC to report to work.  In these DETO cases, the spouses can either stay at post with no jobs, or return to Washington, D.C. and endure the family separation. While this predates Tillerson’s arrival, we’d like to see how many other bureaus have now done away with DETO employees. Email us.

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