The State Department is preparing to submit to Congress a proposal for a pilot project that would create 30 to 50 jobs for spouses of Foreign Service officers serving abroad and that would compensate spouses of ambassadors and other senior diplomats for charitable and social work.
The proposal, called for in legislation sponsored by Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.), is supposed to be sent to Capitol Hill by Feb. 1. But department officials, noting that its provisions are still under discussion and awaiting approval by Secretary of State George P. Shultz, said they may not be able to meet that deadline.
The idea is to make a start on addressing the morale problems in Foreign Service families caused by the inability of spouses to pursue careers or hold jobs when their families are posted abroad. In theory, the proposed measures would be available to both male and female spouses, but in practice they will affect wives almost exclusively.
However, while the problem has made many officers reluctant to take foreign assignments, department officials acknowledge that the concept of paying spouses is expected to stir considerable opposition in Congress and the administration at a time when both the executive and legislative branches are emphasizing fiscal austerity.
The officials said that the centerpiece of the plan calls for creating a new category of full-time "Foreign Service Associate" jobs for spouses of junior and middle-rank officers. Although the original plan envisioned 50 positions, the officials said the number is likely to be scaled back to 30 or 40.
Most would involve what one official called "traditional-type jobs," such as catering for embassy functions and health and youth care. In addition, about 10 positions would be reserved for special projects conceived in Washington and farmed out to foreign missions, where qualified spouses could apply for them.
The pay scales for these positions are still under study, but the officials said efforts are being made to match them to equivalent positions in regular government service. Depending on the specific position, salaries could range from $20,000 to $40,000.
The other main aspect of the proposed plan, and the one that officials expect to stir the most controversy, calls for paying wives of ambassadors, deputy chiefs of mission and consuls-general for assisting with the charitable work, ceremonial events and entertaining required in their husbands' positions.
"That part of the project probably is an idea whose time won't come for at least 10 years," said one official, who asked not to be identified. "We expect a lot of complaints that the wives of business executives and professional people perform similar functions without being paid for it. But we're going on the theory that wives of senior diplomats play an important role in keeping up embassy morale and holding together the American community in foreign capitals and that this role should be recognized."
He said compensation plans for that aspect of the project contemplate paying ambassadors' wives half the salary rate of a grade 5 Foreign Service officer and the wives of deputy chiefs and consuls-general half of the grade 6 rate. That is roughly $11,000 to $14,000.