Paige Warren, an Army wife at Schofield Barracks, is a certified respiratory therapist who was working in a COVID-19 hospital ward in Missouri before her husband transferred to Hawaii in December.

That meant she had to embark on the expensive and time-consuming process of getting a new license so she could work in the state, a requirement that’s common for professionals but particularly cumbersome for military spouses who have to move frequently.

“Each one is its own headache of a process requiring various aspects of our RT history,” Warren said of trying to re-license from state-to-state. “And the other thing is the cost.”

A measure that is moving through the Hawaii Legislature would expedite the process of issuing occupational licenses to military dependents in Hawaii as part of a change of duty station, if they can prove they already have valid certifications and licenses from other states.

Families of U.S. Marines with Marine Unmanned Aerial Squadron 3, Marine Aircraft Group 24, take part in the unit’s deployed spouses brunch on Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Dec. 18, 2019. The event was supported by the United Service Organization to provide service to the families of Marines on deployment during the holidays. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jacob Wilson)
Families of deployed troops at a USO hosted spouses’ brunch at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in December 2019. Courtesy: Jacob Wilson/USMC

House Bill 961, which appeared on its way to a floor vote, would also exempt dependents of military service members from state residency requirements for local government jobs.

It’s in line with a federal push to assist military dependents trying to pursue work and educational opportunities often disrupted by the demands of military life.

The annual defense spending bill passed by Congress for this year included a provision from Sen. Mazie Hirono that would allow the military to reimburse spouses who have to pay licensing fees to continue working as part of a change in duty station.

“This provision will give military spouses more flexibility to pursue their careers, regardless of their location,” Hirono said in a December press release.

In Hawaii, Warren had to pay a $340 application fee for a respiratory therapist license. She also had to pay fees to obtain license verifications from other states where she lived and worked, including those that were inactive but were required by the state processing board.

“I started the license application process in September, sent my paperwork in October, got a notice that Texas hadn’t sent a verification of my previous license in late October or early November,” Warren said. “I didn’t hear anything for weeks, tried calling and nobody answered, there was a full voicemail unable to take any new messages.”

She sent an email to follow up, but didn’t get a reply for five days until they eventually told her that her license was approved.

The new Hawaii legislation would grant a temporary state license to credentialed medical professionals, social workers and other career fields “for which the licensing authority of this State has determined that the licensure requirements of the other jurisdiction are equivalent to or exceed those of this State.”

Rachel Hanvy is a licensed cosmetologist who works at the Post Exchange at Schofield Barracks. She said it’s the only place she can get a job with her out-of-state license since that one is valid on the base, which has its own rules.

She said working off-base would require going through a state re-licensing process that could take more than a year.

“If I ever wanted to move on to a bigger salon, or in a higher traffic area, I would have to go back to school, make up the difference of hours and retest to be able to get my Hawaii state cosmetology license,” said Hanvy. “That process is very lengthy and by the time the state would approve it, that’s when most people would probably have to pack up and leave to a different state again.”

Military Housing at Schofield Barracks in Wahiawa.
Military spouses with professional degrees and certification sometimes have to pay application fees for occupational licenses to pursue their careers every time their family moves to a new duty station. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Relations between military families and local residents in Hawaii are sometimes strained, with accusations that military families receive special treatment.

Military housing allowances have been blamed for contributing to Hawaii’s expensive housing market while the military pours money into renovating run down housing on bases.

During the summer, then-Honolulu City Councilwoman Kymberly Pine, a Navy wife herself, criticized a since-rescinded order signed by Gov. David Ige that granted a quarantine exemption to military families arriving in the state. Pine argued the policy exacerbated tensions.

Nevertheless, some licensing boards in Hawaii that oversee fields desperate for workers already have made efforts to accommodate professionally certified military spouses.

Sarah Overton, a Navy wife and teacher who moved to the islands in June after her husband transferred from a duty station in Spain, praised the Hawaii Teacher Standards Board for being accommodating.

“I actually found that my recent move to Hawaii was my easiest move yet,” she said. “The process was completely online and very easy to complete, and as a bonus fees were waived for military spouses.”

Hawaii has long faced a shortage of teachers, and the pandemic has made it even harder to find qualified candidates due to budget pressures and travel concerns.

Overton said that finding work, contributing to the community and forging relationships with non-military colleagues and neighbors is important to her and other professionals who don’t want their identity to revolve around simply being a military spouse.

“I have been really fortunate to find a position at a really welcoming local middle school, with incredibly kind colleagues,” said Overton.

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