“Activate your Family Care Plan”: how the pandemic setback military members with children, especially women.

By Jessica Ruttenber

A Family Care Plan (FCP) is an essential part of military readiness. Service member’s depend on short term and long-term caregivers for their children during sudden or prolonged separation due to military duty requirements. Dual-military couples and single service members with children are required to have FCPs. In 2018, of the total married active-duty members in the Air Force, 53% of women were in dual-military marriages compared to 12.2% of men.

FCPs were designed in a pre-pandemic mindset and its approach needs to be revisited again. Still there are a few “if the military wanted you have a family they would have issued you one” mindset amongst the ranks and view the FCP as the answer for every situation. One officer noted that during the beginning of COVID-19 when their daycare shutdown due to exposure and was initially unable to come to work, their supervisor told them to simply enact their FCP. Their response: “sorry my family care plan did not cover global pandemic.” This supervisor’s lack of understanding is alarming because not only did they not grasp the impact the pandemic was having on childcare issues, but their response suggests it is unlikely this commander has the capacity to empathize with the demands teleworking has on Airmen who are also responsible for supervising children. Additionally, short- and long-term care providers may not be willing to watch a child that is being quarantined that has been exposed to an infectious disease.

Lieutenant Colonel Michelle Sterling, a two-time Air Force Squadron Commander, discussed the childcare challenges many service members faced during a pandemic. “I think we need to have a broader conversation.” she said. “As a commander I never specifically said ‘activate your family care plan,’ but every service member has a responsibility to care for their dependents. We need to find workable solutions where service members can continue during this time.  This is a marathon, not a sprint and the personnel without care issues cannot be left covering indefinitely if teleworking isn’t an option”.

Active Duty Member Parental Status (N=1,326,200)

Child Development Centers and Child Care Aware Options

The Department of Defense provides nationally accredited Child Development Centers (CDC) that offer affordable childcare to military members and civilians for infants through pre-school age children. School aged programs also provide care in kindergarten through sixth grade. The 2019 DACOWITS reports also found that “ongoing issues related to the availability of military child care, staffing shortages at Child Development Centers, a decline in Family Child Care providers, and insufficient Service member prioritization given the significant backlog of military families waiting for care.”

One option that provides relief when these programs are unavailable is a DoD subsidy program that is administered by Child Care Aware of America, a national membership-based nonprofit organization. The instruction authorizes, but does not require, the Military Services to subsidize a portion of the cost of child care incurred by eligible active duty and DoD civilian employees. Subsidy payments are made directly to the provider, not to the Service member. In areas where child care is in high demand many providers do not opt into the subsidy program as it is seen as an administrative burden leaving the service member with the bill.

Prior to the pandemic lack of available and affordable childcare adversely impacted Readiness and Retention. These significant challenges affect 40% of active duty Service members. The Defense Advisory Committee on Women is the Services 2019 annual report stated that the Secretary of Defense should “allocate increased funding to address the lack of adequate child care capacity on and off installation child care resources to include construction/expansion of child care facilities to ensure sufficient child development center staffing and family child care home providers”.  Analysis of a 2017 Air Force survey found that over 20% of active duty Air Force parents with children under 13 years of age reported lack of access to affordable, adequate childcare.

Alana Maria Behr’s (2020) parents were join spouse at Joint Base Andrews. She was wait-listed at the CDC and attend a private childcare facility for $2,000 USD a month.

Many Airmen with daycare and school-aged children now find themselves in a difficult situation. Active Duty Service Commitments (ADSC) does not always allow them to voluntarily leave the Air Force to take care of their children during long-term school closures. Member’s may apply to separate early due to hardship but it is not a solution for a large scale global event. Day cares are limited with increased demands for childcare and COVID protocols. Alternate work schedules, teleworking and creative childcare options have been holding the line for many. To be clear, the herculean efforts that many have executed these last two years to juggle it all is not sustainable. Service members are exceeding their maximum capacity and are burning out.

Career Intermission Program (CIP) is not the answer.

The Career Intermission Program offers member’s the opportunity for a one-time temporary transition from active duty to the Individual Ready Reserve.  Service members can participate from one to three years and transition back to their previous status. The Active Duty Service Commitment (ADSC) for participating in the program combined with receiving 1/15th of their active duty base has been a deterrent for many.

For example, in 2021, a Staff Sergeant (E-5) in the Air Force with 6 years of service would reduce their base pay from $2746 dollars a month to $183 dollars.  This might benefit the Airmen if we assume they have a dual income home that could financially support the other participating in the program.  But more often than not, Airmen will opt to apply for early separation under the category of pregnancy instead. Increasing the monthly allowance to that similar of the Monthly Housing Allowance of the Post-9/11 Bill would likely increase participation in the CIP and give the needed flexibility for pregnant members and parents.

COVID may result in overall less women in leadership

The National Women’s Law Center reported in September 2020 that four times more women than men dropped out of the labor force. Although reasons for this exodus vary, many are centered on caregiver issues and burnout. A Women in The Workplace Study; found that between 2015 and 2020, the share of women grew from 23 to 28 percent in SVP roles—and from 17 to 21 percent in the C-suite. Women remained dramatically underrepresented, particularly women of color, but the numbers were slowly improving. The study found that mothers are more likely to scale back or leave because of COVID-19. Overall COVID-19 is driving mothers, senior-level women, and Black women to consider downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce, setting back the progress women have made over the last five years.

2020 WOMEN IN THE WORKPLACE, (McKinsey & Company, Lean In)

The Air Force has the largest percentage of female Service members.  Although female representation is still lower than that of the corporate industry they follow the same trend of an increased gender gap as the member ascends in the organizational ranks. Parallels are also present for minority women.  The percentage of female officers who were racial minorities out of all female officers substantially declined as rank increased. Unlike civilians, active duty members cannot not elect to down shift or immediately terminate employment because of the contract they enter joining the Service.  This results in making it difficult in determining how COVID-19 will impact Airmen because lagging effects of retention will not be fully realized for several years. However, if the McKinsey study is any indicator 1 in 4 women are contemplating downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce resulting in having over all less women in leadership.

It is necessary to create long term sustainable policies that attract and retain our best Airmen to provide the necessary talent, experience, and end strength levels. Failure to do so will result in the Air Force’s inability to meet the CSAFs Action Order A which states “leaders owe Airmen and their families the Quality of Service and Quality of Life where all can reach their full potential.” The military’s long-term strategic vision regarding best human capital practices for retention should include child care being funded at the proper level. Further study on the long-term impact of COVID-19 on mothers serving in the military and Black and other underrepresented women is needed. Will the combination of challenges to affordable child care combined with COVID-19 result in less women progressing in the military? Only time will tell.


Edited by J-Rutt’s awesome friends.

Featured Photo provided by author and her son Daniel.

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