You’re excited for an overseas military PCS move with your service member until … that is, until you realize that taking your career with you is likely to be very complicated. Even if you’re a remote employee already, the rules around working while living at an OCONUS duty station are murky at best. And even if you can figure them out, you still have to convince your employer to let you do it.
Those rules are created by what’s known as a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the host nation. So how do you figure out what you need to know about taking your career overseas? In this episode of “PCS with Military.com,” Beth Conlin, a military spouse and OCONUS career advocate, explains the ins and outs of SOFA, how to figure out what you need to know and some steps for working with your employer to take your job with you when you move. Listen now.
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The following is an edited transcript of this episode of PCS with Military.com
Amy Bushatz: Welcome to PCS With Military.com. I'm your host, Amy Bushatz, Military.com's executive editor. On this podcast, we talk about everything you need to know to make this military move season your best yet. PCS With Military.com is brought to you by Navy Federal Credit Union. Proudly serving all branches of the armed forces, veterans and their families. No matter where you are in your military career, Navy Federal Credit Union has the products and resources to help you navigate your finances. Learn more at NavyFederal.org. Our members are the mission.
Now, let's get this PCS started.
Your orders are in and the excitement is real. You are headed overseas for an OCONUS move. But if you're a military spouse who's worked to build a career despite your frequent relocations and all the uncertainty of military life, heading overseas might feel a little less exciting. Even if you've convinced your stateside employer to let you take your role remote, doing your job from another country is an entirely different subject. Why? Because now you have to navigate the challenge of status of forces agreements. Known as SOFA rules, these agreements govern many ways US military members and their families live overseas, including whether spouses can hold jobs in those nations.
So how do you figure out the rules for your upcoming country? And how can you work with your employer or the Pentagon to let you work? Here to talk to us about all things sOFA is Beth Conlin. A longtime military spouse, she had to quit her job thanks to an overseas move in 2013 and has since become a passionate expert on and advocate around SOFA rules. Today she works full-time at Amazon and like me is also an alumni of the Bush Institute's Stand -To Veteran Leadership Program. Beth, welcome to PCS with Military.com.
Beth Conlin: Thank you so much, Amy, for having me. I'm excited to talk about SOFA. Anytime anyone will give me a platform to do that I'm happy to share all the insights.
Amy Bushatz: I understand that. I too am nerdy about many things, and I am delighted when somebody wants to ask me about them. In short, I am very fun at parties. Let's just put it that way. So why don't you start by telling us how many times you have moved with or even without the military.
Beth Conlin: I am coming up on my 15th move this PCS cycle this summer.
Amy Bushatz: That is a lot of moves. And this time you're staying stateside?
Beth Conlin: We are, yes. We have done fun fact, out of those 15 moves, 13 of them have crossed an ocean. So, this will only be my second time not crossing an ocean, which you would l you would think in theory is easier. I have found that it is not, it is just difficult anytime you PCS with the military.
Amy Bushatz: Yeah. Fair enough. Okay, so start by giving us some background on SOFA. What is it? Why does it exist? Who is in charge of it? Why is it such a fun acronym? Tell us all about it.
Beth Conlin: Yes, the acronym, I think is the best part. I forget sometimes if people don't know what SOFA is the look of confusion on their face when they're like, why is this woman talking about a couch?
But so status of forces agreements, as you mentioned in your intro, are peacetime treaties that are established when we have a permanent presence of US service members. So think like post World War II when we established service members all in Germany, right? And then in, in Italy and really across to Europe.
So anytime it's a peacetime activity, like in Japan, South Korea, any overseas location, we have the status of forces agreements put in place. And on the surface, they are legally binding peacetime treaty. And they were originally intended to keep our service members protected while living overseas. So ver like a basic example, if a service member ran a red light in Munich, Germany the status of forces agreement essentially would ensure that service member had appropriate legal protections.
So they're not just like at the will of a foreign country's policing or regulations. So on the surface, they were very basic legal protections for military service members. They never included any conditions about the families. Because if you think about when permanent presence were established, it was like the forties and fifties maybe even into the sixties, and families were not going overseas.
So it was a very like singularly focused peacetime treaty and they are country by country. So there's a lot of reasons the SOFAs are complicated, but one of them is because Japan, South Korea, Italy, Germany, Spain, they all have, there's 122 individual status of forces agreements um, that are negotiated between the host country and the US.
The other challenging part about status of forces agreement is that they are owned by the DoD and the State Department, and they are ratified by our Senate. So there, there is layers of complexity when it comes to amending them, adjusting them, and making any changes to them because you have to get the host country, our country, and then those three agencies involved in any changes.
So it, that's a nutshell as to like what they are and why they're so complicated. Another layer to that is we have a NATO status of forces agreement. So we have like a blanket, NATO status of forces agreement. But Italy, Germany, and Spain all have amendments to that. So even in like the NATO status of forces agreement, there's another layer of complexity, which to your point in the introduction is why it's so important to understand what country you're going to and then figure out the rules of operation in that country.
Amy Bushatz: And why it is so difficult to work with anybody on this, whether that be an employer or the US government, because anytime you bring more bureaucracy to the party, boy howdy, it gets fun.
Beth Conlin: Exactly. And I think it's also important to note that it, in terms of the military family, what, like what does SOFA mean to you?
A simple way to think about it is this, your SOFA status is like your visa. So if you were gonna go to Italy on vacation, you would have a tourist visa. You would be allowed to be in that country for 90 days before you were there like illegally. If you were gonna move to Germany for, to work, you would have what's called an A3 work visa.
And like that is your reason for being in Germany. You are SOFA status, regardless of what country you're in, is essentially like your reason to be there for longer than the standard 90 days. So the SOFA governs the person and their ability to be in the country, which does not always even touch employment. Which is again, why this is complicated because like there's not a blanket policy around SOFA is for your person, working in the country is a completely separate issue in most cases.
Amy Bushatz: So, nail down for us then, how SOFA does impact spouse careers specifically, because we always hear like, oh, military spouse, I'm not allowed to work in XYZ country because of SOFA. So what's the link here?
Beth Conlin: So there's truly, honestly, a lot of that language and a lot of, of that sort of fear mongering, um, to put it, to put it frank, is really a lack of information. So.
Amy Bushatz: A misunderstanding
Beth Conlin: Rarely, correct. Yeah. It's a it, it's, it is the absence of saying you can work that leads a lot of people to say, well, it says, it doesn't say that I can, so I can't. Um, In addition to that, there are a couple instances, like Germany for example, their status of forces agreement says that a certain percentage of jobs on the installation must be reserved for local nationals of the host country.
But at the time that, that, that language was put in there, remote work didn't exist. The internet wasn't even a thing. And so there, there is no addressing of like, what happens if you're working for a US-based company, or in my case, like a global company like Amazon that has nothing to do with a job on the installation. Can I work there? And again, the absence of any language addressing that has led people to say, well, no, you can't.
Another part of the challenge here is actually it's on us. It's on the military family and our, misunderstanding on what it means to be under SOFA orders. So a lot of people think, well, I'm on SOFA status, so I'm on US property, or I live on base, so I'm on US soil.
Which also is not correct. And so there's, we have, we need to take some ownership of understanding what it means to go overseas. If you're on SOFA status and you live on post, you still are living in a foreign country and you need to abide by foreign country employment laws, which means taking your US based career virtually overseas isn't always going to be accepted in that country. In some cases it is, but in most cases you'll need to what's called tax equalize yourself to that post country and get paid in Euros, if you're anywhere in Europe, pay into the German, Italian, or Spanish tax system. You'll be able to maintain your career. But that is, those are like sort of the legal headaches that, that we have to deal with when we are going overseas and working in those host countries.
Amy Bushatz: And then, and we'll address this in a few minutes, but when you are trying to change that, now you're working with your employer to make those changes, and not every employer is willing to jump through the administrative hoops of that. And I imagine often that comes down to HR but we'll cross that bridge here in a second.
So tell us why this is so difficult to change and navigate for the DoD. So spouses need to understand what it is, but when we talk about what we wish was happening, why is it so hard to make those changes or to make those things happen that we feel are logical today? You mentioned, for example, that the internet didn't exist. The internet exists now, so why doesn't the status of forces agreement reflect the existence of these types of jobs or these types of situations?
Beth Conlin: There's two main reasons that it feels like we're pushing a boulder up a hill with this. The first one is the example that happened to me, I will use. When we PCS to Germany in 2013. My employer, I was working for a global company at the time and my employer said to me, okay if you work out of our Munich office, does that void your status of forces status, meaning I would I not be on my husband's orders? Would the Army think he's there alone? Right, like all of these set and there was a non-answer there. Nobody could answer if my employment would void my SOFA status. That information still to this at right now is not clear. That is being worked on to, to resolve that issue, so that employers are clear on like, what are the rules here? So that's part of it is that there's a lack of information.
What are the rules of operation? How do we sort of operate in this environment? The other part of it is because this is a tri- agency, peacetime treaty that involves a second country. So even if we wanted to make an amendment about working conditions being virtual, you have to get that host country involved. You have to get our country involved, DoD, State Department, and the Senate. And you'll hear a lot of people say, well, we can't open up the SOFA to make these changes because then we have to renegotiate everything.
That is incorrect. Also, in 2018, the um, status of forces agreement in Japan was amended to address workforce concerns. So it is possible to just make amendments regarding one subject, but you need a willing host country, willing state, willing, DoD and a willing Senate all on the same page to make those changes. So that's why on the surface it is so challenging. There's a lack of information and then it's a tri- agency owned process involving a second country.
Amy Bushatz: Just a quick pit stop here to thank our sponsor. PCS With Military.com is brought to you by Navy Federal Credit Union.. They may be called Navy Federal, but they don't exclusively serve sailors. Serving all members of the armed forces, they have the products and resources to help you navigate your finances through every phase of life. So even if you can't tell port from starboard, Navy Federal Credit Union will help you earn and save with great rates and exclusive discounts. Learn more at NavyFederal.org. Navy Federal Credit Union, our members are the mission, an equal housing lender.
Okay, so you've told us about the challenges and problems. Give us some practical advice here, if you have any tips for how, how can a spouse work with this, around this, through this, something to stay employed during an OCONUS move? What is your advice?
Beth Conlin: The good news is that I would say over the last five years, this has been just a louder and louder sort of battle cry from the spouse community that we have to fix this. And so it has put a lot of pressure on the host countries, our JAG offices in those host countries to just get the information together.
So there's a couple of key factors that I think are super, super important. Number one, military JAG ,doesn't matter what branch, cannot, is not authorized to give employment advice.
They are not labor law attorneys. They, they can and they will give tax advice, which is truly where SOFA like that's the crux of the situation in the employment space is about taxes. So while I would love to think that all of our JAG offices are smart enough to know that when a spouse comes in to acts about employment, they're really talking about taxes, not all of them are.
So if you wanna talk to the local JAG office about how SOFA is gonna impact your employment, you want to talk to them about taxes. They can help you there.
Secondarily , there have been a few countries that are notorious for kind of like really entrenched fear mongering and just full out falsehoods on what SOFA means. They have been really pressed to clarify and be truthful and upfront with that. So countries like Italy and Germany actually now have pretty good information in that host country.
Other countries like Japan and Korea have super simple guidelines to follow. You just contact that JAG office in whatever installation you're going to say, Hey, what information do you have about SOFA? Those two countries in particular, Korea and Japan, have very easy one pagers that are like, here's the rules of engagement in our country.
Leaning into your host country's JAG to ask about tax and SOFA is where you're going to get the most up-to-date information and then understand too that coming from the top down, I would say over the next two or three years, guidance will continue to be clarified because with Covid, a lot of countries Thailand, Italy, Spain, they introduced something called a digital nomad work visa. And that allows you, if, regardless of SOFA, that allows you to go live and work in their country while collecting income from your home country. That also addresses the tax policies on how you do that.
So with the advent of digital nomad visas, there has been an increased push to say, can we wrap this into SOFA? Can we clarify this language? So I would say, lean into your host country JAG office, ask about taxes not employment. And then definitely keep your ears peeled for more information on the impacts of the digital nomad visas on our abilities to work overseas.
Amy Bushatz: What you're not saying is get a digital nomad visa instead of being on SOFA status.
Beth Conlin: Correct,. Yes. I'm saying that the admin of a digital nomad visa will probably inform the way SOFA is the language of the SOFA.
Amy Bushatz: And the reason to not do that is because you need to be sponsored on base to be overseas with your spouse and receive all of the other services and support and other permissions to be there. And having a digital nomad visa and just living in the host country instead of being there on a SOFA status would negate all of those other things. You wouldn't have your household goods moved by the DoD for the family. You wouldn't have your kids sponsored to be on base school if that's what you wanna do, and so on and so forth. It sort of wipes out a whole bunch of other stuff while also letting you work.
Beth Conlin: Correct. Is, and I think it's a, and I thank you for the clarification. I'm just hoping it's a good example of how the private sector can influence the public sector in this particular instance, and I have a lot of faith that this particular change in the way that we do business will actually be a positive one for our spouses who wanna maintain employment overseas.
Amy Bushatz: What about working with your employer? So let's say I get orders to Germany. Okay? And I go to my employer and I say, Hey, I'm already a remote employee. Check it out. Now I'm gonna live in Germany. Can I take my job there? You know, Or just say, I'm taking my job there. What happens next? When your employer pushes back? What are, What are some tips for working through that with them?
Beth Conlin: So there are two types of employers in this instance, a global employer, and let's, I'll just say a US based employer for simplicity. If you have a global employer who has entities in other countries, if they have an entity, so I'll use example, Amazon. Amazon has entities, headquarters offices in Germany. By law, you are required to align with that entity. So I would get paid in German dollars or in Euros and have to pay to German taxes. So if you have a global employer, number one, check to see if there's an entity in that country and then work with your HR and tax to see if you have to be tax equalized in that host country.
If you are a US. I would say work very closely with your tax in HR because it's, there's varying degrees of acceptance based on the size and, honestly, level of risk that those employers are willing to take. We do have a lot of small US based employers that continue to employ spouses overseas, and they are confident in um, their ability to do so based on our unique tax statuses using the Military Spouse Residency Relief Act.
So, if you have a small US based employer I would say talk to them early because it's a bit complicated and you need to talk to HR, tax and payroll. And get them all aligned. And then I would say take it from there, but talk early, talk often. And then if you have a global employer, again aligned with HR, tax and payroll to see if there is an entity in that host country.
Amy Bushatz: And what if you are a contractor like so many of us are these days? So you are a 1099 in the us right? You're not employed by anyone. You filed taxes under that status. You wanna take your contractor-ness with you to Germany and just work there as if you were working here and have nobody be the wiser. Is that possible?
Beth Conlin: So that depends. There's two things you wanna consider there. So one is, there there is a Social Security administration tax law for contractors where you can apply yourself as an exempt tax entity in that country. That information is found on the Social Security Administration website. It's actually pretty simple and the rules are super clear.
So one check Social Security Administration tax policy there. And then secondarily, look at your host country status of forces agreements because some countries mention it super clear, don't care, and they say, if you are not engaging in the local economy, so let's say you're a journalist, and you only write for US-based publications, you're not engaging in the local economy. They don't care. But it, it does vary country by country. So look into, again, go to the JAG office to talk about taxes and they will be able to advise you on that 1099 status.
Amy Bushatz: Perfect. Okay. And let's say you're somebody who thinks all of this is nonsense and you really wish it would change, how can we as military spouses support or advocate for changes to this system?
Beth Conlin: I would say you are correct to say this is nonsense and it should change, number one. I validate that feeling for you. Number two, because anything that we change in the SOFA has to be ratified by the Senate, you have to be civically engaged. You've got to write your senators, write them, call them, email them. Talk to their staff. Let them know the importance of any of these changes. In particular, if your senator is on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
But regardless, any changes have to get ratified by the Senate. So write your Senate, write them early, write often. Additionally, you can the US Chamber of Commerce and MySECO they both have a very simple chart, if you will, that shows kind of, what the levels, I guess, of strictness of the status of forces agreement are. So you can also look there for those resources to first understand how big of a mountain are you about to climb in finding out this information, and then which Jag office should you go to. So talk to your senators, engage with the Chamber and MySECO, Military OneSource to get their SOFA resources. And then talk to the Jags and your host country.
But ultimately if we want change, we gotta just keep beating that drum, which is getting progressively louder. So I do see change happening in, in the future for all of us to maintain our employment.
Amy Bushatz: And I will make sure that the fact sheet that you just mentioned is linked in the show notes. So anyone who wants to see that can just check out the show notes for PCS with Military.com for this episode and find a link directly to that.
Beth, thank you so much for your time, your expertise, and your advocacy on this issue, and for sharing it with us here at PCS with MIlitary.com. Thank you.
Beth Conlin: Thank you for having me and being willing to let me nerd out on SOFA.
Amy Bushatz: Thanks so much for listening to PCS With Military.com. Want more PCS advice? Check out the rest of PCS With Military.com wherever you get your podcasts. A special thanks to our sponsor, Navy Federal Credit Union, proudly serving all branches of the armed forces, veterans and their families. No matter where you are in your military career, Navy Federal Credit Union has the products and resources to help you navigate your finances. Learn more at NavyFederal.org. Our members are the mission.
And until next time, happy moving.