Monday, January 4, 2010

The Differences Between the Hardship, Danger, Service-Needs Differential and Hard-to-Fill Designations

Since this topic has come up a couple of times in the comments of this blog, here is my attempt to explain the differences between these designations (subject to change, of course). Alison and I exchanged comments in The Entry Level/Untenured Bid List is Out, if you prefer that format.

The best source for up-to-date information on a post's differential and allowances is the Department of State's Office of Allowances in the Bureau of Administration. They are the keepers of these and the Foreign Per Diem Rates.

They publish the latest schedules on their website, divided into:
Post Cost of Living Allowance (COLA)
Post (Hardship) Differential
Living Quarters Allowance
Education Allowance
Danger Pay Allowance
Foreign Per Diem Rates

Their definitions for each of these is listed in their Summary of Allowances and Benefits.

You can also look at all of these by post with their Allowances by Location section. You can find this information through other sources during A-100, but it comes in very handy for biding on subsequent tours.

The first two of these four designations are pretty straight-forward (from the website):

"The Post Hardship Differential is meant to compensate employees for service at places in foreign areas where conditions of environment differ substantially from conditions of environment in the continental United States and warrant additional compensation as a recruitment and retention incentive. It is paid as a percentage of basic compensation in 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30 and 35% increments." To see which posts have a Hardship Differential just go to Post (Hardship) Differential and look down the list.

"The Danger Pay Allowance provides additional compensation for employees serving at designated danger pay posts. It is paid as a percentage of basic compensation in 15, 20, 25, 30 and 35% increments." To see which posts have a Danger Pay Allowance, just go to Danger Pay Allowance and look own the list.

Now the Service-Needs Differential and Hard-to-Fill designations are trickier. If you are in A-100 or an untenured officer, only the Hard-to-Fill designation applies, and only for your second tour bidding.

For example in our case, the Entry Level Position in Kolkata was designated as a Hard-to-Fill job at post. The benefit we received from this was an extra 5% differential during our second tour bid. The standard differential (hardship plus danger) for Kolkata was 25%, plus the extra 5%, gave us 30% differential for bidding purposes. And as I mentioned in The Entry Level/Untenured Bid List is Out this gave us a nice boost in the assignment order.

A Hard-to-Fill job at a post is defined as when less than two officers in grade and at cone bid on a specific job at that post. This typically refers to tenured officer bidding. State's Human Resources maintains a list of Hard-to-Fill jobs at posts. Your Career Development Officer is also a good source for this information, if you are in A-100 or an untenured officer.

Next up, Service-Needs Differential:

A post is designated as a Service-Needs Differential post when it is Historically-Difficult-to-Staff.

If you are a tenured officer and serving at a post qualifies you for a Service-Needs Differential, you currently get a 15% of your salary bonus for three years, if you extend your two year posting to three years. You have up to six months after your arrival at post to decide on taking the opportunity. If you curtail or leave post early, you have to return the 15%.

For untenured officers, since the first two tours are only two years each, you cannot volunteer to extend to get the Service-Needs Differential at a Historically-Difficult-to-Staff post. A Hard-to-Fill job may qualify for the Service-Needs Differential if it is in a Historically-Difficult-to-Staff post.

Here is the chain of events that leads a post to become designated as Service-Needs Differential:

1. Hard-to-Fill – when less than two officers in grade and at cone bid on a specific job at post

2. Most-Difficult-to-Staff – when more than half of the jobs available at a post where Hard-to-Fill

3. Historically-Difficult-to-Staff – when a post has been Most-Difficult-to-Staff for the 3 out of the last 4 years

That may of been too much information, but may be helpful at a later time. Please add to the above with comments!

Update: I added the tags "trailing partner" and "preparation to move" since the comments generated discussion on those topics.


Mom said...

I just adore you!!!

I would have LOVED to have found that chart for the Hardship percentages earlier. I ended up going through each individual location to find out the hardship rate. I never could find that chart. THANK YOU for giving me the link.

I did find a bunch of useful information through the Family Life portion of the website. I hope to have as much research and information as possible completed by the time we need it.

I've been able to access old reports - 2004, I think - of the various locations. This is giving me very useful information regarding the reasons a post might be determined to be a hardship. Many of the reasons for hardship will not be an issue for us because it just doesn't apply. I'm a SAHM, we home school our children already, and we don't have any TV reception here so it won't matter if we don't have TV reception there, either. (as long as I can take my TV and VCR/DVD player along - with my vast collection of videos to go along with it)

Mom said...

Thank you, also, for your response in "still overwhelmed."

More questions:

What do you think is absolutely necessary to bring along and what can be left behind? (typically... I know this will vary some small bit.)

If the post is not a consumables post, is it worth it to use some of your HHE weight for food products that your family is attached to? (I have peanut butter addicts here)

Several posts that are hardship posts also have danger differentials. Is the spouse and family automatically banned from traveling to posts with a danger differential?

What is the most difficult part of being a 'trailing spouse' for you?

Is Internet access generally available for most posts?

Natalie Buda Smith said...

I forgot to mention Tales from a Small Planet at They have Real Post Reports (RPRs) that also tend to have candid accounts of each post. Very helpful to weigh this information with the OBC's Post Info to Go.

Natalie Buda Smith said...


For us in Kolkata, we were happy that we decided to bring our dog, artwork and large toy/activity items for our daughter. The things that make the housing more personalized for you are very comforting. We had debated on whether we should bring our artwork, since we were afraid that it might get lost or damaged during shipping. But everything arrived fine and it really helps make our housing feel more like home. We have been lucky in India since there are so many things to buy for a home as well.

The diplomatic pouch has been great for many other things that we did not bring. There are a lot of restrictions, but the limiting factors for us has been: no more than 16 oz liquid, no liquid in glass containers and no package larger than 29” on any size. Other posts may have different specifications but the size limits I have seen are anywhere from 32” to 29”. Which leads me to the large toy/activity items. If you want a specific large item for your children that may not be available or very expensive at post, make sure to put it in your HHE. If your post is an APO/FPO post, then you have different restrictions, which can be found here:

Yes, it is definitely worth bringing your favorite American brands in your HHE if the are not available or very expensive at post. And a definite must if they are liquid since you may not be able to order them and send them through the diplomatic pouch.

Minnesota Gal’s Blog at, has great posts on their love of ravioli and Diet Coke, for your enjoyment:

For the question about posts with Danger Pay: a post can qualify for danger pay but still be accompanied. There is a list of unaccompanied posts, where family members are not allowed to travel as part of the diplomatic community. The list can change based on current events, so you will want to check with the OBC or the Family Liaison Office (FLO) to get the most current list for your bidding. FLO has some great information on unaccompanied tours at

In my opinion, the most difficult part of being a trailing partner (outside of the career issues) is to have to rebuild your identity or day-to-day relationships at every posting. When you arrive at a new post, you basically have a clean slate to begin with unless you already know people there from previous posts or lives. You can either find this refreshing or frustrating, since it takes a lot of energy to express the depth of your personality that you had already established at a former location.

Yes, I have seen Internet access at every post we have looked at, it is mainly the cost and the speed that varies.

hannah said...

Another related topic: the difference between hardship, limited unaccompanied, and unaccompanied posts. Kolkata is a hardship post (over 25%, which I think is still the threshhold). Riyadh is currently limited unaccompanied - no school-age kids, and EFMs must get a job in the embassy. Baghdad is unaccompanied, period. Baghdad is, of course, a hardship tour as well - but it has a few more hardships than most!

Natalie Buda Smith said...

Thanks Hannah! I am exhausted!

Digger said...

Great post! In my never ending quest for not reinventing the wheel, I have linked to you here:

Mom said...

Thank you so much. I know I sort of bombarded you... but I really do appreciate the information.

@ Hannah: If the children are home schooled, would the "no school aged children" still apply? We home school now and will continue to do so regardless of where we are.

@ Natalie: Everything I have read recommends that we should hire house help when we arrive at post. Is that process difficult?

Also, would you recommend Kolkata to new FSOs?

hannah said...

@Mom, no clue re. homeschooling, but I suspect it's still a no-go. I have no kids, so I ignored that part of the post report!

Natalie Buda Smith said...


Household help is available at many posts, but the cost can vary dramatically. FLO is a good source for information on the cost of nannies, with their Childcare Report, available on the intranet.

Otherwise, the Community Liaison Office at post is a good start for finding help at post. Some keep lists of available people.

The best way to find help is to hire one that worked well from a departing officer.

In my opinion, the issue with hiring help is not usually the availability but the quality of their services.

I need to write a blog post on this!

Yes, Kolkata is a great post for a Junior Officer that is single, married/with partner, or with small kids. Middle school to high school aged kids may find the post very challenging.

Mom said...

Thank you so much, Natalie.

Dan said...

Excellent post! It's often difficult to read through the Department's rules and regs on how pay is determined. I'll be adding this link to my site if you don't mind.

And to those that serve at a Service-Needs Differential post i have one more thing to add. I've had this happen to myself and to others. It is possible for the annual 15% payment not to be received automatically. I had to remind our Financial Office, at post, to process my annual payment each year on my anniversary of arrival. So it's always wise to check your pay period statements.


Natalie Buda Smith said...

Thanks for the link Dan!