Amy Caplan moved to Portland from the San Francisco area at an extraordinary time in human history, a fact not lost on the 58-year-old as she stopped at multiple Walmart stores on the drive north in search of toilet paper.
It was March 11, days before stay-home orders gripped the West Coast. Caplan’s Honda Fit with the California vanity plate declaring her love of veganism and soon-to-be-expired tags wasn’t on the top of her to-do list as a new Oregonian.
Yet, at the behest of state officials, Caplan mailed her title, the transfer paperwork and her payment to Salem in June to start the registration process. She did so despite a well-publicized order instructing law enforcement to essentially turn a blind eye to drivers with expired tags or identification.
“I made every attempt to do this the best way possible,’ Caplan said.
Caplan ended up in an interminable limbo: She didn’t know whether the state had her vehicle title, she didn’t know when she would get it back and she didn’t know what to do next.
“There was no solution.”
Oregon DMV officials acknowledged this week they still don’t know how many people are stuck in limbo waiting for paperwork to be addressed or other services at the state office. Phone systems continue to be overloaded. Appointments are booked solid at least two months out. New dates are opened up in two-week increments. Availability depends on where you live. The DMV, long pilloried as the stereotype of a plodding government agency, has faced a full plate: The pandemic, wildfire-related office closures, the long-tortured rollout of Real IDs and a 2021 law taking effect that will expand driver’s license access to potentially more than 100,000 residents.
David House, a DMV spokesperson, said the average turnaround for cases like Caplan’s – people who moved or are registering a vehicle — is 10 to 12 weeks, but that’s just an estimate.
“We can’t accurately measure this, though, let alone track an individual transaction, because we have a huge backlog of mailed-in transactions waiting in queues – shelves of mail – for their turn in processing,” House said in an email.
DMV offices across the state shut their doors completely for 10 weeks due to the pandemic. Fifty-eight of the state’s 60 offices reopened with a new appointment-only method, a system that was instantly overloaded, scrapped and redesigned after some 18,000 callers jammed up the system in the first hour on June 1. The original plan had customers call for appointments, which the state ultimately flipped on its head, calling customers instead.
By July, the system was redesigned again to allow customers to schedule or modify appointments online.
The state now says that system is working and it’s conducting 22,000 in-person appointments per week, an increase from the estimated 13,750 transactions at field offices a year ago.
House said that’s due to refining appointment times for various transactions, installing safety barriers between counters at offices and increasing capacity at some larger branches. The state has also hired and trained additional staff.
Despite those increases, the state is still digging out from its 10-week shutdown and trying to go through incalculable amounts of mail.
“To put it in perspective,” House wrote, “if we doubled the size of DMV tomorrow, theoretically it would take 10 weeks to do both catch-up business and normally scheduled services.”
House said the state hopes “in a few months” the agency will know how much of the backlog it’s eliminated. “We only know that we must exceed the output of normal times, and everything we’re doing is focusing on that strategy,” he said.
Tom McClellan, the state’s DMV administrator, spoke last month about the myriad ways the department is changing to meet the customer’s needs. At the September Oregon Transportation Commissioner meeting, McClellan said the office was investigating self-serve kiosks where customers could get their vehicle registration without coming into an office.
He said the wildfires forced another four-day closure that further gummed up appointments.
“We’re not out of the woods yet and we face many difficult decisions in the coming weeks and months,” he said, adding that ultimately, the DMV could be transformed in positive ways going forward.
The state already shifted many services online, and McClellan said he’d like to make driver’s license knowledge tests available remotely. “Many of the things we need to do is just have fewer people come to our offices,” he said.
House added that the state is trying to add drop boxes at some offices to speed up transactions. Additional hiring continues, and he said an online calculator now helps users determine what they may owe for vehicle title and registration costs, something the state hopes will help cut down on errors and speed up transactions.
The state is also starting a pilot program to resume driver’s tests at some DMV locations, since obtaining a driver’s license is now limited to third-party vendors and some driver education classes. House said, though, that the state is starting by contacting medically at-risk drivers to perform their driver’s test.
There’s no immediate plan to resume driving tests at DMV offices.
This year was already supposed to be challenging for the DMV. After years of legislative ordered foot-dragging, DMV was preparing to finally begin issuing the federally mandated Real ID cards.
State lawmakers had punted on complying with the federal requirement for years, leaving Oregon as the last in the country to comply with the national law, which stipulates a more stringent form of identification to board domestic airplanes and enter federal facilities.
Before the pandemic, Oregon expected an unprecedented crunch of customers between July and October – as many as 960,000 Oregonians would want the cards according to their own estimates. The original plan gave a three-month window before Real IDs or other federally recognized documents like passports would be required to board domestic flights this October. The pandemic pushed that federal deadline back a year, giving the department a much-needed reprieve.
Since July, Oregon has issued 47,747 Real ID compliant driver’s license or ID cards, roughly 36% of all transactions made in the past few months. The state estimated that 40% of Oregonians have passports.
While domestic air travel is down considerably, it’s possible more people will continue to seek appointments for those cards into next year, when the federal requirement for domestic travel kicks in next October.
In 2019, Gov. Kate Brown signed House Bill 2015 into law, which removed the federal requirement for legal residency to qualify for non-Real ID licenses. She also added civil protections so license holders can’t be discriminated against if they don’t have the federally approved identification.
That bill came more than a decade after the state last issued eight-year driver’s licenses without requiring applicants to provide proof they are citizens or legal residents. Without that protection, tens of thousands of Oregonians were left with no legal driving privileges.
It’s unclear how many people may seek those documents, but the DMV cited a Pew Research Center estimate of roughly 100,000 Oregonians who would be eligible for those driver’s licenses, learner’s permits or general identification cards. House, the DMV spokesperson, said people who want one of those cards must schedule an appointment, which won’t be available until 2021.
In the days since contacting The Oregonian/OregonLive, Caplan said she got a call from a DMV official who told her to drive to Salem with money, saying they would meet her outside to finish the paperwork and ensure she’d paid the right amount. That call came more than three months after she mailed the paperwork in June.
Caplan said Thursday she finally received her title. She also has a temporary registration.
But that registration expires in February, and it’s not clear the state will be clear of the pandemic by then.
It’s unclear how many like Caplan remain mired in bureaucratic limbo. State economists typically analyze out-of-state licenses surrendered to the DMV to track in-migration. Those figures are down roughly 40% this year. Economists say it’s unclear how much of that is due to situations like Caplan’s, though their forecasts indicate in-migration will be down 30% this year, primarily due to the recession.
Meanwhile, the DMV notes that the moratorium on penalties for expired tags or licenses was extended to Dec. 31. “Discussions of extending it are under way,” House said.
For how long? That, too, is unclear.