State Dept processing passports at pre-pandemic levels, despite ‘unprecedented’ demand

The State Department processed over 24 million passport books and cards in fiscal 2023 — a new record. And it's back to processing passport applications withi...

The State Department is back to processing passport applications at a rate not seen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The department, in a press release Monday, said it’s once again processing passport applications within 6-8 weeks for routine service.

For an extra $60, applicants can have their application expedited and get their passport processed within two-to-three weeks. That’s on top of the $130 fee all applicants pay to obtain or renew a passport.

The State Department processed over 24 million passport books and cards in fiscal 2023 — a new record.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted Monday that the “dedicated State Department team is delivering for the American people,” and has met “unprecedented demand” for passports.

At the height of this year’s summer travel season, the department took about 10-13 weeks for routine passport processing, and about 7-9 weeks for expedited service. Department officials, however, predicted a return to pre-pandemic processing times by the end of 2023.

Despite the improved performance, Congress is taking steps to ensure the State Department can keep handling the increased demand for passports.

The fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act that passed last week gives the State Department direct hire authority to bring on as many as 80 passport and visa employees more quickly.

The NDAA also requires the department to give Congress quarterly reports on passport wait times for the next three years.

“It is the sense of Congress that passport wait times since 2021 have been unacceptably long and have created frustration among those seeking to obtain or renew passports,” the NDAA states.

The legislation also requires the State Department to launch online chat capabilities that will allow applicants to ask questions or check on the status of their passport applications.

The State Department plans to fully launch an online passport renewal platform by the end of this year, or early next year. It soft-launched the platform in late 2022.

President Joe Biden directed the department to launch its online passport renewal system as part of his December 2021 executive order on improving customer experience across the federal government.

House and Senate lawmakers repeatedly pressed the department this year for updates on clearing the passport backlog.

Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Rena Bitter told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in June that the Bureau of Consular Affairs saw “historically high demand” for passport and visa services.

Bitter said Consular Affairs, which runs largely on passport fees, had to freeze hiring during the height of the pandemic, but emergency appropriations from Congress kept the bureau from having to lay off employees.

Once the bureau started bringing in more revenue in late 2021, it resumed hiring for passport adjudicators. Bitter said the bureau started hiring more overseas adjudicators in the beginning of 2022, and that some overseas positions remain vacant.

Bitter said the bureau hired 177 new passport adjudicators this year, growing its workforce by about 10%. She said the bureau is in the process of growing its workforce by another 10%.

The Bureau of Consular Affairs authorized tens of thousands of overtime hours each month at the height of this year’s passport backlog.

National Federation of Federal Employees Local 1998 President Lee Wentz said in August that passport services employees also grew frustrated with these delays.

“We’re all here doing what we can to help everybody. And if we were on the other side of the coin … I’d be frustrated too. We all totally get that, we totally understand it. But at the same time, from the employee standpoint, we’re doing everything we can to help everybody,” Wentz said.

Between January and June this year, the Bureau of Consular Affairs authorized between 30,000 and 40,000 overtime hours each month.

Wentz said most of that overtime was voluntary, and that passport services employees were willing to put in extra hours when needed.

The department estimates only 5% of Americans held a passport in 1990. Now nearly half of Americans own a passport.

About 160 million valid U.S. passports are currently in circulation — nearly double the amount from 2007.

The Government Publishing Office is also staffing up and introducing workplace flexibilities to keep up with passport production.

GPO Director Hugh Halpern told the Senate Rules Committee last week the agency has been “aggressively hiring” to keep up with demand for passports.

The agency hired 190 new employees in FY 2023 — a 41% increase in new hires, compared to 2022.

Halpern said the agency ramped up hiring to offset “significant looming retirements” among its workforce.  He said GPO’s passport division also implemented a four-day work week, where employees work 10 hours each day.

He told the committee that the four-day workweek reduces wear and tear on GPO’s equipment, and gives employees the flexibility of a three-day weekend or overtime work when it’s available.

“We’ve been able to recruit because of our dedication to making GPO a great place to work and our willingness to experiment with alternate work arrangements,” he told the committee.

Halpern said GPO is also in talks with the State Department and international partners to consider features for a new generation of passports in the coming decades.

“There may be a digital component to it, but you will still need a physical document keyed to that. So I think we’ve got probably a good another 20 years or so of still having some sort of physical document,” he added.      

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