FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: August 1, 2007
President Bush Signs Schumer Bill That Would Break Months-Long Passport Gridlock - Bring Relief t New Yorkers Waiting Anxiously For Their Passports
Schumer Legislation Allows Dept. of State to Hire Back Foreign Service Employees Who Are Trained Passport Processors
Passport Application Explosion Created Unprecedented Backlog in NY and Across the Country, Ruined Numerous NY Vacations
Schumer's Office Inundated with Calls for Help
With staggering backlogs at passport processing centers that serve New York City and the country, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer today announced that President George W. Bush has signed into law Schumer’s bill (S. 966) to break the passport log-jam. The bill was unanimously approved by both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Schumer’s legislation gives the Department of State flexibility to rehire retired Foreign Service employees to staff overwhelmed passport processing centers that are experiencing interminable turnaround times for new passports. The State Department will now have access to a long list of qualified retired adjudicators who can be called up to help process passport applications safely and efficiently. Schumer said that fear and confusion over impending new passport rules have led directly to the explosion in applications and processing gridlock.
"Vacationers and honeymooners can breathe a sigh of relief because help is on the way for thousands of New Yorkers who have overseas trips looming,” Schumer said. “My legislation will break through the logjam and give the State Department access to the experienced staff they need to get people the passports they are anxiously awaiting. I applaud the President for approving my legislation and look forward to the State Department’s speedy use of this new and needed authority.”
Schumer’s legislation grants flexibility to the State Department to rehire, on a temporary basis, retired and fully trained processors to help manage the increased passport demand caused by the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. Currently, retirees from Foreign Service have little incentive to assist in crises because they lose retirement benefits if they exceed strict wage and hour caps.
The State Department has admitted that they have a database of qualified retired adjudicators at the ready who can be called up to help or who can extend their assistance if the Department is granted this new flexibility to respond to crisis situations. The Department of State already had some authority to waive the caps on working, but it was limited to personnel for Iraq and Afghanistan. Schumer's legislation extends this hiring flexibility so that the State Department can also recruit foreign service retirees in order to meet passport demand caused by new passport rules and to assist with visa processing at overwhelmed consular offices overseas. The legislation will sunset on September 30, 2008 for visa workers and on September 30, 2009 for passport workers.
Schumer’s legislation was approved by the House on July 16 and passed the Senate in its final form on July 18, before being sent to the President for his approval. The State Department hopes to hire back up to 300 passport adjudicators this year alone, some 50-100 of whom could be hired as a direct result of Schumer’s legislation.
Against a backdrop of confusion and concern over new travel restrictions, the Department of State is receiving more than 1 million passport applications a month. The avalanche of requests has buried its staff and caused delays of up to six weeks over normal processing times during the peak season when many people are preparing to travel over the spring and summer.
Schumer said that the current bottleneck is affecting all stages of passport processing, from the initial scanning of an application to the adjudication of citizenship. Call centers to assist people in New York City and across the country are overwhelmed with passport processing issues but do not have the staff necessary to address the influx of calls. In response, the State Department has tried lengthening work hours and requiring overtime, but it is still crippled by a lack of qualified personnel who have undergone the background checks necessary to handle sensitive passport adjudications.
The State Department recently admitted that it underestimated the increased demand that would be caused by the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative and other passport policy changes. It takes the Department anywhere between three months and a year to vet and train a new passport adjudicator, but this necessary security precaution leaves the Department with little flexibility to handle surges in demand like the current crisis.
According to the State Department, applications for new passports and renewals received between October 2006 and March 2007 rose 44 percent over the same period in 2005-2006. As a result, the Department is warning travelers that routine passport processing will take 10-12 weeks instead of the previous six, and expedited processing could take 2-3 weeks instead of two weeks. About 12 million passport applications were processed in 2006 and as many as 18 million are expected this year, the department said. At a hearing on June 19, the State Department told Congress that 2.95 million passport applications were pending.
"Sadly, this administration is unusually adept at imposing strict new guidelines and unusually inept when it comes to providing the resources necessary to meet them. This bill will give the State Department a critical safety valve to meet soaring passport demand," said Schumer.
Shortly after Schumer’s initial call to break the logjam with this legislation, the Office of Personnel Management agreed on March 30, 2007, to grant a similar waiver for the rehiring of civil service employees. This means that the State Department will also be able to tap into the reserve of retired civil service personnel already trained as passport processors, to alleviate the situation. Two weeks ago, after another Schumer call, the State Department admitted that it will refund the $60 passport expedite fee for all New Yorkers who paid the fee and have still not received their passports in an expedited fashion.