The State Department spent much of the coronavirus pandemic bringing tens of thousands of Americans back to the United States amid global travel restrictions.
But as states and municipalities ease restrictions and allow more local businesses to open, the agency has released plans for a phased reopening of passport facilities for Americans once again looking to travel internationally.
Guidance on how the Bureau of Consular Affairs will reopen passport service offices across the country looks similar to what other agencies have recently posted, and falls in line with how the Trump administration has instructed the federal government to reopen offices across the country, based on state and local conditions.
The State Department in March significantly reduced passport operations – suspending expedited passport process and limited service to “life or death emergencies.”
The agency will continue to prioritize the most urgent cases before it returns to full operating capacity. Meanwhile, agency employees who work at passport facilities can expect to return to work in three phases, each dependent on local conditions.
The first phase of reopened sites will require “limited staff” to return to work.
During phase one, the agency will process applications on a first-in, first-out basis. Employees and customers must wear masks for cloth face coverings in common areas and follow social distancing requirements.
While facilities will reopen, the State Department recommends that the public wait to apply for new passports because of anticipated delays in processing.
Rob Arnold, the National Federation of Federal Employees business representative for the Northwest region, said in an interview that the State Department’s passports specialists have been out of weather and safety leave during the pandemic.
NFFE represents about 1,200 passport specialists and around 100 others non-management employees. Arnold estimated that the agency employs about an equal number of contractor employees.
As for which locations will reopen first, and when, Arnold said the guidance doesn’t yet provide many details.
“Different cities have different COVID-19 statistics right now, so you can’t tell from the guidance so far whether they’re talking a week from now or three weeks from now or what,” Arnold said.
Telework isn’t an option for employees, but Arnold said NFFE explored the possibility of remote work with the State Department around 15 years ago. Those talks, however, ultimately fell apart over privacy concerns.
“All of those applications have Social Security numbers on them, so there was a concern. They’re limited to working with hard-copy documentation to ensure the integrity of the final product, and they felt it was just much safer to keep all that work inside the office with complete control of all those taxpayers’ private information,” Arnold said.
The State Department, in its guidance, notes that passport processing requires employees to review birth certificates and other sensitive documents, as well as print and mail passport books and cards to customers.
“This means that our staff are not able to process passport applications from home. For customers who already submitted applications, your documents remain secure pending further processing,” the agency’s Office of the Spokesperson wrote.
In phase two of reopening, most passport specialists will return to work, and the requirement to wear masks and social distance will remain in effect.
By phase three, all passport services employees will return to work, but staff and customers can continue to wear masks if they prefer. At this point, the agency will resume expedited processing for passports.
Under normal circumstances, the State Department processes over 18 million passports a year.
NFFE last year warned that the Bureau of Consular Affairs was “woefully understaffed” to processing an increasing volume of passport applications every year, resulting in the longest passport processing times since 2007.
Arnold said the workforce reached peak levels in 2017, but has steadily declined since then, while the demand for passports has exceeded that capacity. A passport specialist, he said, processes about 100 applications a day.
While passport facilities won’t reopen at full capacity, Arnold expects that staff should be able to handle the current volume of applications.
“It could well be that the falling demand for passports in 2020 make the numbers work out OK for this year, but that won’t be the case for next year. Even when they do open back up, they’re going to have a significant backlog that has been there for several months now, since they shut down all the offices in early April,” he said.
However, incoming applications will also limit how quickly the agency can whittle down its backlog of applications.
Aside from urging the State Department to hire as many as 200 additional passport specialists, NFFE has also urged the agency to update what Arnold described as a “patchwork” of older IT systems that limit the speed of processing applications.
Antiquated work processes, he added, have also limited productivity.
“To the extent that there is duplication of effort in the way that passports are reviewed, there’s some time-savings to be had in that. So in the interest of lowering the backlog, they could get rid of some of the antiquated procedural rules on how applications are processed,” Arnold said.
Last week the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee passed a bipartisan resolution thanking State Department employees for bringing 85,000 Americans back to the U.S. from 128 countries and territories during the pandemic. The resolution heads to the Senate for a floor vote.
“Most Americans don’t usually see the State Department at work, much less experience firsthand the outstanding work of our diplomats abroad,” committee chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) said in a statement.