The state Motor Vehicle Commission’s boss pulled no punches when asked by a legislator to grade the agency’s performance during the coronavirus pandemic, giving it a D to an F for the long lines and waits drivers endured last year.
But she prefaced it by saying that grade did not apply to MVC front line workers, who processed 20% more transactions than in the pre-coronavirus years and cleared a backlog that other state DMVs are still plowing through.
“When you talk about front line workers, that included the MVC workers, they did their level best, despite difficult circumstances,” Sue Fulton said during Thursday’s state senate budget and appropriations committee hearing. “I’d say the experience for customers in the first few months was a D or an F.”
That grade was for what happened after agencies reopened on July 7 to a tremendous backlog of millions of transactions put off during the four months they were closed during the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
“That said, I am not downgrading the work of the agency, facility or IT teams, who made changes every week for customers,” she said. “It was difficult for customers and they rightfully should be angry.”
Fulton, who could be leaving the position after she was nominated as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs by President Joe Biden, praised her staff for clearing the backlog of 7.2 million transactions by February.
“I don’t have one grade for our facilities team, who worked day and night, ordering plexiglass (barriers) in March before a shortage, and built and installed the barriers,” she said. “I’m not going to down grade them. I’m not downgrading our agencies who did 20% more work even with agencies closed.”
She praised the Information Technology team for installing the hardware and software necessary to switch customers away from lining up to do walk-in transactions at agencies to a mostly appointment-based system before winter.
“It was important to make it almost (all) appointments by winter,” Fulton said. “It was a looming deadline and if we didn’t clear the lines (waiting outside agencies) when it got cold, it would be unacceptable.”
When asked, Fulton said one fault was that the MVC could have done a better job communicating that more transactions, almost 80%, moved online to convince drivers to use the website instead of the agency.
“We thought more would adopt to online transactions faster,” she said. “We didn’t effectively communicate with people.”
The appointment system isn’t perfect, especially when agencies have to close due to employees testing positive for coronavirus. That means appointments at that location are canceled and drivers have to start the appointment process over.
“There is frustration when facilities are closed, that is our biggest issue,” said Senator Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, who echoed what other legislators said they are hearing from constituents about losing appointments.
“We did a new download today (Thursday) on appointments,” Fulton said.
Those changes to the system added many appointments at Licensing Centers, said William Connolly, an MVC spokesman.
“Speeding up transactions at both Licensing and Vehicle Centers also opened up more appointments,” he said.
“Due to other operational changes, we expect the number of total transactions that require an agency visit to continue declining below where we’re at now, which is around 20%,” he said. “Increasing appointments while reducing required visits means greater in-person capacity, especially for new drivers.”
Senator MIchael Tesla Jr., R-Cumberland, asked why MVC agencies have to be closed after an employee tests positive, while retail stores and supermarkets remain open under the same circumstances.
“They (stores) don’t have their employees in as tight a space,” she said. “The separation between checkouts and aisles is significantly more than our people have in agencies in little strip malls.”
Even the newer, larger agencies have more space dedicated to customer waiting areas than “behind the counter,” she said.
The ultimate answer to reducing the average six to seven agencies closed a week due to COVID-19 is vaccinating front line MVC workers, she said. The MVC suspended administrating the Johnson & Johnson vaccine when the state put it on hold, and switched to Moderna vaccine. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has since been reinstated statewide.
“We’ll be completed with the first vaccinations, across the board, next week,” Fulton said.
The first shot of the Moderna vaccine has taken place at 14 other agencies, and officials expect to finish first shots of Moderna for all employees who serve customers by the end of next week, Connolly said. That schedule could change if agencies close after an employee tests positive for COVID-19, he said.
“At this time, nine of 39 agencies have been able to get fully vaccinated, and are past the 14-days-after-final-shot point, so they are no longer subject to blanket closure,” he said.
Other appointment slots at the MVC will be freed up since the federal Department of Homeland security pushed off the date that domestic air travelers will need a Real ID driver’s license to use as identification at airports from later this year to May 2023, she said. Appointments that would have accommodated those customers can be switched to transactions that have a greater need, she said.
Still, some legislators said that in-person access to the MVC needs to remain for customers who don’t have access to broadband, the internet or the technical skills to do their business online.
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Larry Higgs may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.