Posted on 06/19/2019
Despite “all-time record numbers” of passports issued, staffing has dropped since Trump took office.
Denis Wolok, 1-month-old Eva's father, shows the child's U.S. passport in January in Hollywood, Fla. (Iuliia Stashevska/AP)
Joe Davidson Columnist June 14, 2019
Just after news broke about the possibility of longer lines at airport security checkpoints, information now emerges about longer waits for international travelers before they get to the airport.
The State Department’s Passport Services agency has increased the processing time for routine service to six to eight weeks. Until May 31, the interval between application and delivery was four to six weeks, meaning the new timeline is a 50 percent increase for the minimum wait.
For those who can’t wait, expedited service is available at a cost.
“Customers who need their passports more urgently than our routine processing time allows may request expedited service for an additional $60,” said a State Department official who requested anonymity. “For expedited service, processing time remains two to three weeks door-to-door.”
Once they get inside the airport door, international and domestic passengers could face longer security lines. Earlier this week we reported that the Trump administration requested a 2.5 percent increase in airport checkpoint screeners for fiscal 2020 but expects a 4.5 percent increase in airline passengers. That’s a recipe for long lines.
Eli Swenson, a Falls Church, Va., resident traveling soon to Italy, didn’t learn about the increased processing times until after he applied for a passport last month.
“While it was frustrating that the time frame was lengthened during my renewal application process, once I visited the office here in D.C., the staff were very knowledgeable and helpful,” he said after leaving the agency’s office on 19th Street NW on Thursday afternoon.
Praise for staffers was repeated by others leaving the office, even those who complained about the inconvenience. “Maybe they don’t have the resources to meet that demand,” said Zack Samara, a District resident who was eager to get his passport shortly after becoming a citizen. He needs it to visit relatives in Mexico. “Definitely they need to have more staff so they can keep up with demand.”
The department official declined to answer several basic questions about the longer wait, including the reasons for it. But the department did provide information indicating short staffing is the cause.
In each of the past two years, more than 21 million passports and passport cards were delivered — “all-time record numbers,” according to the State Department. About 18.6 million applications are expected this fiscal year. In fiscal 2018, 137.5 million citizens had valid passports, representing a growth of almost 100 percent over the past decade.
Yet, the administration has cut the number of employees. The spokesman said there are 1,253 passport specialists, compared with 1,457 in January 2017, when Trump took office — a 14 percent decrease during a period when a historic number of travel documents were issued.
“To address high passport workload levels this summer,” he said, “the Department is leveraging all available resources to ensure processing times do not rise further and that they return to lower levels by September.” Leveraging includes temporarily assigning employees to assist with increased demand and setting up two satellite passport units with employees from other parts of the department.
Leveraging also means making employees work more.
“Specifically, it means mandatory overtime hours,” said Sara Kelleher, a National Federation of Federal Employees senior steward in Boston, who spoke of “increased workload with much less staffing.” The number of passport specialists there is down 38 percent, from 29 in 2017 to 18 now, she said.
Pointing to the 18 mandatory overtime hours in April and 16 hours in May and June each, she added, “It’s difficult to maintain a work-life balance during these months, and it’s stressful to see the workload piling up.”
Rob Arnold, a NFFE national vice president and president of its passport local, said the agency is “trying to get by with 2015 staffing, but the workload is significantly higher than 2015.” Staffing has been a problem since former secretary of state Rex Tillerson imposed a departmentwide hiring freeze in 2017, Arnold added. The current secretary, Mike Pompeo, promised to lift the hiring freeze, but the number of passport specialists has fallen.
Another union leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because “the risk of retaliation is very real,” also blamed a higher level of security rating now required for passport specialists. The “secret clearance” requirement “has severely strained the agency’s ability” to recruit and hire, the union leader said. “Considering that the secret clearance process takes anywhere from six months to a year, new hires are often only able to begin work a full year after accepting the job.”
Douglas Kidd, executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers, called the longer waits for passports “disturbing. We pay higher and ever higher taxes and fees for government services … only to be told that we must wait longer and longer for these services to be delivered.”
Until service improves, Samara had these words of advice: “People should plan ahead.”