The Navy has a problem with unpaid labor

It’s an open secret: The Navy thrives not just on the labor of sailors, but also on the unpaid labor of military families. This has become more glaringly obvious to me as my spouse has risen now to the rank of commander, and there has been an increasing expectation that I will devote my my time in support of his career, most notably with my invitation to attend a week-long course on how to be the spouse of a commanding officer.

Historically, there has been an expectation in the Navy that the CO’s spouse would act as a mini-CO to the ship’s spouses. They organize get-togethers during deployments and hold an honorary role in the ship’s Fleet Readiness Group. They are often expected to play a part in ship events, help plan certain events and act as a resource to sailor and officer spouses alike. To me, this sounds like a lot of unpaid labor.

I have no interest in knocking Navy spouses, overwhelmingly women, at any level who are interested in volunteering their time and energy to supporting a command. I commend them. As a human being, I also want to spend my time creating a vibrant community in my spouse’s command and sharing whatever resources I can with those around me. What I have a problem with is the pervasive unstated expectation that spouses should participate in unpaid labor.

In my view, women in American society feel the need to do everything they can to support those around them. That was evident in the mass exodus of women from the workforce during the COVID-19 crisis as lack of childcare kept more women than men home. For military families, where there is added stress from deployments and moves, the instinct is to want to support others in the same proverbial boat. There’s guilt associated with standing up and saying that it’s unfair for the military to exploit the time and energy of military spouses — as though we’re being ungrateful instead of insisting our efforts are meaningful.

Military spouses already have a hard enough time maintaining careers. Most of us are unemployed or underemployed. One hopes that will begin to change as more employers are opening up to remote workforces in the wake of COVID-19, but for now, it’s still very much a reality that military spouses have a difficult time working due to frequent moves, lack of adequate childcare and deployments, among other issues. It feels cruel then for the military to nudge spouses towards key roles in the health of the command and not compensate them for it.

It’s not just senior spouses who are asked to volunteer their time and energy to the command in unpaid roles that are baked into the core of the system’s structure. Most Navy commands require an ombudsman who acts as a liaison between the sailors’ families and the CO. The ombudsman is usually a sailor’s spouse. Whether or not a ship has a good ombudsman can drastically affect morale and family members’ sense of well being. It is a ton of hard work that requires specialized and recurring training. The only payment is possible reimbursement for expenses incurred if the command has a budget for it.

There is clearly true value in the work spouses put in towards a command’s overall success. The military, and in particular the Navy, is still operating on outdated models where spouses are often seen as an extension of the service member rather than as an independent, valuable individual.

If you want proof that the military treats spouses as an extension of the service member, just look at how BAH differs between those with dependents and without. On a very basic level, service members with a spouse or children are paid more, which I’d argue is a reflection of the expectations placed on military families, as well as an incentive towards “family values.” Pay shouldn’t be determined by marital or family status but rather based on the responsibilities and roles of the individual. Period.

I don’t want the Navy to get rid of the CO spouse school I’ve been invited to or any program that can be beneficial. I’m not about to ask for fewer resources. The school isn’t the problem. My understanding is that the message of this school is extremely positive. They reiterate that CO spouses can have as much or little involvement as they want. While that’s a great message, it doesn’t negate the fact that there are unstated expectations put on spouses at all levels.

What I’m asking for is for the military to recognize and respect the labor of the people who support it. Pay the ombudsman. Provide stipends for spouses who volunteer in critical roles, not just senior leadership spouses but on all levels. Stop expecting unpaid labor. Our time has value. We have value.

Julie Zack is a Navy spouse, mother and writer currently living in Rhode Island.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Navy Times Editor Kent Miller,

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