Passport processing is back to pre-pandemic speeds after the U.S. Department of State used hiring and increased overtime to shave weeks off wait times amid record demand.
The department said it issued more than 24 million passports in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the highest annual tally ever recorded. Today, nearly half of all Americans have passports, compared to just 5% in 1990.
Earlier this fall, it was taking between eight to 11 weeks to receive a standard passport. Now, the department can turn them around in six to eight weeks. For expedited passports, expect it to take two to three weeks, for an additional $60.
“We have worked hard to modernize and improve the service we provide to the American people,” the agency said in a statement Monday. “We will continue to do so in 2024.”
Earlier this summer, passport backlogs exacerbated by the pandemic caught the attention of Congress. Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen wrote in a March letter to the department that his constituents were waiting on the toll-free helpline for hours, and that there was a lack of available in-person meetings to answer questions. Two Democrats from California proposed legislation to investigate the department’s operations and devise a document tracking system.
In announcing progress on improvements on Dec. 18, the department said in a statement to Federal Times that staffing increased 12% from a year ago. There are also “hundreds of additional staff” in the hiring pipeline, according to the agency.
Additionally, the department authorized up to 40,000 hours of overtime each month from January to October of this year, a spokesperson said. The department also enlisted the help of retirees, volunteers and new hires from other departments to work on “surge teams” before reporting to their other assignments.
The President’s 2024 budget request for the department also included $163 million to revamp passport services with expanded digital access to alleviate workloads on adjudicators.
“The Department of State is committed to providing the best possible service for our passport customers while upholding strict national security standards,” the spokesperson said.
Despite an all-hands-on-deck approach to its passport problem, union leaders representing State Department employees have cautioned that tools like mandatory overtime could lead to other issues, like burnout and higher attrition.
And while hiring is a good step forward, it takes time for trainees to be brought up to speed, meaning it’s not an immediate fix, said the National Federation of Federal Employees in a statement to Congress in June.
“Solutions to this problem are not mandatory overtime or decreasing investments, but rather a complete overhaul of the technology,” according to the union.
State Department has been piloting online services for passport applications and renewals, though those efforts have not yet been fully rolled out for public use, and the department continues to rely heavily on paper certifications.
And while many service backlogs at other agencies like Social Security and the Office of Personnel Management have been blamed on telework, NFFE’s National President, Randy Erwin, said passport employees have never been able to telework due to the sensitive nature of documents handling.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.