By April of 2020, the Department of State complied with local lockdown orders and closed all passport agencies due to the threat of the COVID-19 Pandemic. All bargaining unit employees were placed on Weather and Safety Leave. Teleworking was not an option due to long standing State Department policy. That all changed on June 11th, 2020, when the Department designated Passport Services as Mission Critical. All bargaining unit employees were called back to the office, despite hazardous local public health conditions and orders restricting non-essential operations. Only bargaining unit employees who self-identified as high-risk based on CDC guidelines were permitted to remain on Weather and Safety Leave. The remaining employees diligently and eagerly returned to the office to serve the American public and process U.S. Passports. These employees worked long hours indoors in confined spaces, despite the clear risks inherent in doing so.
In November 2020, the Department unilaterally changed the qualifications for Weather and Safety Leave. Despite CDC guidelines and an exponentially rising number of daily cases, the qualifying medical conditions for remaining on Weather and Safety Leave were drastically reduced. Even more bargaining unit employees returned to work to tackle the rising backlog of passport applications.
Over the last several months, we have seen a growing number of passport applications arrive at our facilities. The public was warned of delays along every step of the way as well as interruptions in processing and shipping. Now officials and long-term employees are warning of similarities to 2007 when Passport Services received a record number of applications after the United States formally began enforcing the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. At that time, delays were seen across the network as the American public scrambled to renew passports or apply for the new Passport Card.
Currently, there are over 2 million passport applications in the system awaiting processing. The pressure is increasing on the small number of passport specialists to complete applications and assist travelers in taking their dream vacations after a devastating year prior.
Passport specialists are working diligently to issue these travel documents while ensuring the integrity and strength of the American passport. Years of insufficient hiring a failure to retain employees and a hardline restriction of telework opportunities and facilities for passport specialists has hindered our ability to provide greater services to the American public and has been highlighted by the pandemic.
NFFE Local 1998 has repeatedly put forward prospective solutions to increase productivity while also ensuring the safety and well-being of our bargaining unit employees. We have called on Congress to appropriate funds for better software, equipment, and systems which has often landed on deaf ears. We have urged Management to take a serious look at the decrease in hiring over the past years and we have demanded the development of telework opportunities similar to that of other federal agencies that deal with Personally Identifiable Information.
Additionally, we have asked management to rethink the cap on overtime work for all bargaining unit employees. The work is there, and there are people that want to get passports to deserving applicants, but we are constantly restrained by the number of hours we are allowed to work.
As employees of the U.S. Department of State, the BUE of NFFE 1998 are committed to serving the American public. We are proud of our work to secure the integrity of the U.S. Passport, combat fraud, and issue travel and identity documents to our fellow Americans. While this incredibly high back log can be intimidating, we are doing everything we can with the tools that we have, to get the American public their passport.
You can download the full statement here.