In July 2021 Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill into law that treats military spouses and children as a protected class. Supporters of this legislation, the first of its kind, hope it’s a step towards added protections for military spouses and families nationwide.
“What brings you to the area?” “How long will you be here?” “I see you have changed jobs a few times, why is that?”
These seemingly harmless interview questions that often spell doom for military-connected job seekers could now be considered discriminatory under VA House Bill 2161. While service members are protected by laws like the USERRA, with some states offering additional protections based on military/veteran status, the legal language often falls short of explicitly covering military dependents. Virginia is the first.
Virginia leads the way
“I started doing some additional research in terms of what protections are available at the federal level and came to realize that there were no protections in Virginia for spouse unemployment discrimination,” said Virginia Del. Kathy Tran, who co-sponsored HB2161 (D-42nd District).
Tran is hopeful that this legislation will curb blatant discriminatory hiring practices and also give military spouses additional tools to stand up for their legal protections when they feel they have been violated.
“In my mind, we didn’t really think of the historical significance of it; it was just the right thing to do,” said Ross Snare, chief operating officer for Prince William Chamber of Commerce, one of the supporters of the bill. “This is just something that’s going to continue to make Virginia, a very veteran, very military-friendly state.”
The idea to extend this protection to military dependents was a natural evolution for Tran, who previously worked in the U.S. Department of Labor on projects that examined military spouse and veteran unemployment and career advancement. The stars aligned when Tran’s cousin, who serves in the Navy, shared a story of military spouse employment discrimination. She uncovered more instances of discrimination in employment, housing practices and public accommodations.
“I had a conversation with the Virginia Poverty Law Center,” said Tran. “Many landlords in Virginia were being encouraged to ask service members to waive their rights under the federal Service Members Civil Relief Act (SMCRA) for housing as a condition of getting a lease.”
Tran then went directly to the source, turning to military spouse advocates like Julie Shepard and Blue Star Families to determine how pervasive these issues were and collecting stories to build her case to cover military dependents within existing anti-discrimination legislation.
What does employment discrimination look like?
For some military spouses, employment discrimination prevents them from getting a foot in the door. Michelle Schatvet is a Navy spouse who first experienced discrimination because of her military affiliation while stationed in South Carolina. She was told that she would not be a good fit for a temp agency because she would only be in the location for a short time.
“It’s [discrimination] pretty obvious when the interview is going great and then all of a sudden, they make the connection and next thing I know in minutes after they realize I’m a spouse the interview is over,” Schatvet explained.
Those who make it past the hiring stage are met with new challenges because of their military connection.
“‘Oh, you have to leave again because your kid is sick, well can’t your husband go?’ I have three kids. If one of them is sick, or one of them forgets their project or fill in the blank, I am the primary caregiver by default,” said Air Force spouse Heather Campbell.
When her family was stationed in Montgomery, Alabama, Campbell felt the pressure to be 100% present at home and work.
“I have to be available because he can’t be,” Campbell said. However, sometimes juggling is preferred to a lack of employment options. Currently, Campbell does not have much hope of finding work in her new duty station in Interior Alaska. As a result of her previous employment experiences, Campbell has turned to entrepreneurship as an alternative.
Military on military employment discrimination
Despite concerted efforts to educate employers of the benefits of hiring military spouses, discrimination is still experienced within the military community itself. Lexie Coppinger is an Army spouse living in Fort Benning, Georgia, who experienced employment discrimination as recently as March 2021.
“I was informed that although I was the absolute best candidate they decided to go with another candidate because they saw that my address was a military installation,” said Coppinger.
Like many would-be employers, they assumed that she would only be in the area for a short time.
“It was especially a big blow to me because this was coming from a military entity itself, this was the National Guard.”
What else is covered?
While many policies and programs focus on educating and incentivizing employers to hire military spouses, this new law takes a different tact.
Military children: According to the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, the law applies to “educational institutions,” thus prohibiting discrimination against military-connected students.
Housing: The bill prevents landlords from charging service members a higher security deposit for a rental property; from refusing to rent to someone in the reserves; and from requiring service members to waive federal housing protections covered by the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act as a condition of getting a lease.
“I know it takes a lot of courage to come forward when you are facing employment discrimination or harassment on the job,” Tran said. By coming forward spouses can show discrimination is “no longer okay here.”