Senate Unanimously Approves Schumer Bill To Break Months-Long Passport Gridlock And Hire Back Experienced Staff To Speed Up Processing
Schumer Legislation Allows Dept. of State to Hire Back Foreign Service Employees Who Are Trained Passport Processors Passport Application Explosion Creating Unprecedented Backlog in NY and Across The Country, Ruined Countless NY VacationsMore Than 1 Million Passport Applications Came in Last Month Alone
With staggering backlogs at passport processing centers that serve New York City and the country, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer announced that his bill to break the passport logjam was unanimously approved by the full Senate today and now will go to the House of Representatives for consideration. As amended, Schumer's legislation (S. 966) would give 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.
"The passport system is on the path toward a mass meltdown as processing delays have pushed the average wait time to two and a half months," said Schumer. "These unacceptable delays are disrupting the lives of thousands of New York City travelers and businesses. This bill will allow the State Department to tap into a wealth of retired employees who are already trained to process passports and assist travelers. By pulling these Foreign Service members off the bench, the State Department will gain additional manpower that could well be the key to breaking this passport logjam."
Schumer's legislation grants flexibility to the State Department to rehire, on a temporary basis, retired and fully trained passport processors to help existing processors manage the increased demand. 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 would extend 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 would sunset on September 30, 2010.
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 JanuarytoApril 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 20052006. As a result, the Department is warning travelers that routine passport processing will take 1012 weeks instead of the previous six, and expedited processing could take 23 weeks instead of two weeks. About 12 million passport applications were processed in 2006 and as many as 17 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 are currently 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.
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