Since our terrific socially-distanced trip to New Mexico six weeks ago for my birthday, V and I have been settling in to life in Ciudad Juárez together. It has been both great, and tedious, and prolonged, kind of like 2020.
We Can Share This Space, For Now
We have been unpacking the house, teleworking (V) and going into the consulate (me), and even feeding a feral mama cat and her three kittens. They appear to have been living in the apex between our house and the 12-foot high stone wall that squares off our backyard from our neighbors on either side and a construction zone in the distance out the back.
V put a box and towel in the back yard for them, and despite my misgivings about them using our backyard as a litter box, so far they have been clean and fairly well-behaved. Sometimes papa cat stops by too, but never eats or sleeps here – presumably he is off hunting and tomcatting around, creating more strays.
We often watch the kittens – one black, one white, and one mixed, striped shades of gray – through the bars on the windows, but they scatter to the winds when we open the back door. We haven’t managed to execute our plan to get a puppy yet, nor have we really settled the house enough to think of much pre-winter gardening, and I find that I not only don’t mind that they are there but often check on them. They seem happy and entertained with so little – sleeping in the Australian moving company packaging that until recently wrapped our patio chairs, and batting at shards of tape that have long since lost their stick – that I kind of feel sorry for them. Their little spirits are strong and playful.
Just Say Yes
About a week after we returned from White Sands in mid-October, we got the news we had been waiting months for: V’s DETO (Domestic Employee Teleworking Overseas) agreement had been finalized.
A little more than a year ago, once we settled in Arlington, VA and I was studying Spanish at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in preparation for this tour, V was hired at FSI in the Overseas Briefing Center (OBC). The OBC is kind of like the braintrust of support and resources for officers getting ready to PCS (a Permanent Change of Station move) to an overseas post.
V worked at the OBC every day, but as a contractor for a staffing company. The company was great – even sent him bonus gifts for his birthday and Christmas with little cards. He also loved working with his team and boss, who are permanent federal employees in the Foreign Service and Civil Service, and terrific colleagues.
But our move to Ciudad Juárez was looming, and like every officer’s spouse, he was worried about whether he would be able to secure employment at the consulate, or perhaps across the border in El Paso. He managed to work at the embassies in Tashkent and Canberra during my prior tours, but it was not easy or immediate to get either of those jobs – in one case he started working four months after me and in another case, nine months after. During a short two-year tour, that is frustrating and had a financial impact on our family.
His goal this time was to become a federal employee again in his own right (he previously worked for the federal government for over 25 years), and work remotely overseas on a DETO arrangement through an office in Washington. A DETO is like the unicorn job for “trailing spouses” – often wished for, but very rarely seen. Usually when a family pulls stakes and PCSs to their next assignment, the trailing spouse waves goodbye to whatever employment they had cobbled together and searches desperately for something else. Their colleagues thank them and wish them well, and that’s the end of it.
But it seems, at least to me, the pandemic has changed some of the Department culture around who can do what work and from where. Between the time we started sheltering at home in March and when we moved to Mexico in July, V continued to work every day from home and add value to his team. He didn’t set foot at FSI for months, just like his federal employee colleagues. But he attended meetings, created products, and met deadlines – just like his federal employee colleagues.
And just before our PCS, he received a tremendous offer: his boss had been trying for months to convert his position as a contractor to a Civil Service job, and then put him on a DETO arrangement so he could continue working for them… from Ciudad Juárez. And the offer was approved.
We were ecstatic! The only problem was that his onboarding date was right in the middle of our PCS to Mexico. So he managed to push it back slightly. We drove to Mexico with both of our cars, and, after sheltering for two weeks to make sure we hadn’t picked up COVID-19 on the road, V hopped on a plane and flew back to Washington for his onboarding.
Truth be told, it was kind of a stressful time, as I started a new job in a new place, with one of the highest crime rates in the western hemisphere, in the middle of a pandemic, and he had to go stay in a hotel at our expense in Arlington and work virtually, while the onboarding and DETO approval process dragged on and on… for eight weeks with no end in sight.
It would be a mystery to private sector folks how these things work, and honestly it still is to us in some regards too. But essentially, you have to become a government employee (not a contractor) before the chain of DETO approvals can officially start. Until your DETO arrangement is formally approved – by the “hosting” post (especially if your job will require embassy or consulate workspace, which fortunately V’s does not), and a ton of people in Washington – you cannot work overseas or outside of your “duty station;” in this case, Washington, DC. And V had a lot of work to do. He wanted to work, rather than take Leave Without Pay (LWOP) or burn up all his vacation time sitting in Juárez trying to ride out the approvals wait.
So, he worked there, and I worked here. Never mind the fact that we live four miles from the United States – Ciudad Juárez is “overseas!”
Don’t Jump the Gun
At the nine-week mark, after missing our wedding anniversary, V received temporary informal permission to relocate to El Paso just in time for my birthday. He flew back and faithfully worked from a hotel on the U.S. side of the border, keeping all his receipts. He spent weekends with me in Juárez, using leave when needed and helping me unpack the house. And after week eleven, the glorious approval came through. V could work in Juárez!
I have to say that despite the expense, health risk, and separation, it was 100 percent worth it for V to convert from a contractor position to a permanent federal job, and one he can work remotely from Post housing. A DETO job is such a gift, and the ability for V to continue working entirely remotely with a team he admires and have a paying, busy job while safe here at home, is wonderful for our family. I appreciate his boss and colleagues so much for advocating for and supporting this, and in a way, even the pandemic for creating conditions to help us change leadership perspectives on how we “show up” for work.
At the end of the day though, with all due respect to hierarchy and the clearance processes FSOs know and observe so well, separating us for nearly three months for little more than administrative purposes when the main stakeholders (Post and V’s management chain) had already signed off on V’s ability to do the job from overseas, seems to me to be inconsistent with the Department’s position that it supports recruiting and retaining the best. There were multiple errors and delays throughout V’s onboarding process that prolonged his stay in Washington. Add that to the opaque top-level DETO approval process and I still do not understand why we had to be apart and pay three months in a hotel while waiting for permission on something I understood everyone was already in favor of. My thoughts on the Department’s seeming inability to get out of its own way when supporting families serving together – especially ironic as October was “talentcare awareness month” – is a conversation for another day, though, and not likely on the blog.
Know When to Ramp Up, and When to Throttle Back
We also had a little freak snowstorm at the end of October, after months of temperatures in the 90s. It was the day V checked out of his hotel and drove home to stay, storm be damned.
I feel like I don’t really know what the temperature has been outside lately, because I’ve spent the majority of my time in the house. After working in the office every business day since my arrival two week stay-at-home period ended in mid-August, I finally started switching off teleworking with my boss. I also recently realized – approaching the end of the year – that I have accumulated 90 hours of use-or-lose annual leave.
Thus I scheduled myself for a bunch of half days, and a bunch of days off, before December 31, while trying to juggle a Phase I skeleton crew of office staffing, everyone’s holiday requests, and emergency consular appointments.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in a virtual training about a topic we in the consular world call IPCA, international parental child abduction. Afterwards I took some time off, devouring The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix and The Servant on Apple TV, while still calling in to lots of meetings and keeping one foot in the mix.
I also was incredibly busy last week working an eight-day overnight duty officer shift with arrests, telephonic prison interviews, a shooting, a domestic violence situation, medical emergencies, and even a call from Ops. You would also be stunned by the number of people arrested for accidentally bringing weapons or cartridges across the border. It seems to have been one of the most memorably insane duty shifts in recent consulate memory. I feel like I’m keeping odd hours, but I like the work, and am hanging in great.
If only I could talk about all the incredible work our team is doing protecting, documenting, and supporting U.S. citizens here, but alas, there is so much to keep to myself. So suffice it to say that the work is nonstop and our team is the best. Luckily, because of the way we share the work and take turns in the office, I have been able to accelerate and decelerate as needed. I will be the Acting ACS Chief for four weeks soon, and will need to be in the office every day and available after-hours, so a little downtime right now to finish getting the house in order is perfect.
Take Care of Your Spacesuit
Unfortunately, over the past few weeks I have both succeeded in setting up lots of medical appointments and support in El Paso, and received pieces of difficult news. Not only that skipping dental visits for our health and safety during the pandemic caused us both to need extra dental work and cleaning, but my new neurosurgeon confirmed in October via a CT scan that since my successful January 2018 back surgery, I no longer have a disc between my L4 and L5 vertebrae.
I am having more nerve impingement and damage in my left leg. This is not a surprise to me; for the better part of a year, I have been struggling with pain and immobility. I can feel the bone on bone. I have a hard time getting up and down. Sometimes I can barely turn over in bed. My left leg and foot have been either on pins and needles or increasingly numb for months. One day last month I got up from my desk and to my shock, felt nothing when I put my left foot down. I couldn’t even tell if my foot was touching the floor and I almost fell. It felt completely like wood. Three MRIs and an Electromyography (EMG) to measure the extent of the nerve damage in my left leg have recently followed. What the best surgical intervention will be remains to be seen, but COVID-19 or not, I cannot stay this way.
Don’t Be a Viral Host
The COVID-19 situation in both Ciudad Juárez and El Paso continues to be desperate. It has negatively impacted our ability to settle fully into our lives here, something I will talk about in an upcoming post. The good news is that we are well and happy enough, and most importantly, safe.