Taciya Brown’s only option was to wait three months to get her first-time driver’s license. She followed the instructions, booked an appointment in August and chose the next available date: Oct. 28.
She walked into the Richmond Central location of the Department of Motor Vehicles on Broad Street on Wednesday, her files with city residency documents and proof of identity and Social Security buckled under her arm.
Brown had waited 18 years for this, and now, only a road skills test separated her from loosening the strain of finding a ride to her job at Walmart — a 20-minute drive away.
Then the DMV clerk told Brown, 18, that her appointment wasn’t in the system. The next available slot was in January.
Eight months into the COVID-19 crisis, all 73 DMV centers opened are by appointment-only, and most in Virginia are booked three months out. Statewide, residents are traveling past their county’s lines — and beyond — to access an available date, though depending on the service needed, such as license renewal or vehicle titles, some locations in the Richmond area have availability in December, a DMV spokesperson said.
Gov. Ralph Northam announced March 17 that the DMV’s 75 locations would close their doors. Nine centers opened in phases in mid-May, 35 offices in June, 49 by the end of July and the rest in mid-August.
Even with Northam granting 60-day extensions for license and registrations renewals, the state agency opened in August to nearly five months of backlogged services for an organization that pre-pandemic saw 17,700 people daily.
Now, on average, the DMV is serving 11,000 people per day across 73 centers. Only two of the 75 remain closed due to their small spaces.
The Virginia DMV does not have an estimation of when the agency will catch up to the demand.
To address the inundation of the state system, the DMV implemented a two-year online renewal option for driver’s licenses in September. About 100,000 residents are eligible for this option, according to the DMV.
Vehicle registration, driver’s license renewal and title replacements, three of 40 online services available on the DMV’s website, can still be done virtually.
But navigating the online services requires an account that, when attempting to create a password, has provided some users with a default page that reads, “You will need assistance setting up your online account. Visit www.dmvnow.com to schedule an appointment at a DMV customer service center.”
And, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 30% of households in Richmond between 2014 and 2018 did not have a broadband internet subscription. About 14% did not have a computer.
Yet statewide, about 74% of vehicle registration renewals in September 2019 were conducted online or by mail. In 2020, that number increased to 91%.
Alternatives to the DMV centers — and online, mail or in-person transactions — include DMV Selects and DMV Connect, which is comprised of 14 teams traveling through communities with portable equipment to conduct appointments.
Contractors were hired to assist with call volumes, but residents statewide have flooded the Virginia DMV Facebook page saying it wasn’t enough.
With the DMV’s call options, the phone rings. Then rings again. No one answers.
“YOU GUYS SAY THE LINE IS BUSY IMMEDIATELY AT 8am,” said a Facebook user on the Virginia DMV Facebook. “I HAVE A BETTER CHANCE REACHING THE UNEMPLOYMENT OFFICE THEN YOU ALL.”
“Planning to call everyday until someone answers by accident,” said another.
The DMV is staffed to handle 4,500 to 5,000 calls per day, said spokesperson Jessica Cowardin. One week in June, it logged more than 600,000 call attempts, or at least 120 times its capacity.
Since centers began reopening on May 18, nearly 7 million transactions have been conducted and more than 1.5 million appointments have been rescheduled — including 8,800 that were disrupted after a cut cable in Chester on Oct. 13 shut down multiple state agencies including the DMV on the last day for voter registration.
When the DMV center locations were closed from March 18 to May 17, employees processed 1.7 million online and mail transactions.
“We knew when we went to service by appointment, there would be a learning curve for Virginians who have never had to make appointments with DMV for most services,” Cowardin said. “It is a learning curve for us, as well.”
And staffing challenges persist, Cowardin added. Hundreds of employees, particularly those over the age of 65 with pre-existing conditions, filed for federal leave.
The DMV, along with other state agencies, reopened its offices with new health and safety protocols. Its counters have plastic partitions dividing them, employees working at every other window, and lobby chairs spaced 8 feet apart to subdue the spread of the coronavirus.
As of Friday, 57 DMV employees have reportedly contracted COVID-19. The most recent case was reported Thursday.
One died on April 7, nearly three weeks after the DMV’s 75 centers closed.
The virus has tested the capacity of the 125,000-square-foot Richmond building and its ability to balance abiding by health measures, the tortured rollout of Real IDs and a 2021 law taking effect that will expand driver’s license access to thousands of undocumented residents.
Nationwide, motor vehicle departments are swamped, with Oregon’s backlog estimated to take a year to clear. In New Jersey, people are being paid to hold the line outside motor vehicle offices. The California DMV’s shutdown forced the rescheduling of over a million appointments since the start of the pandemic.
The Virginia DMV has worked to widen online services to make space for more appointment slots, including an online renewal of commercial driver’s licenses in November that could benefit nearly 8,000 people.
But on Wednesday morning at the Richmond Central DMV, people still carted their kids in strollers, by hand and slung over their shoulders to apply for a driver’s license, renew expired tags and receive car titles; family members lingered outside. Some people were turned away due to not having an appointment.
Chelsea Forehand, 25, was one of them. She buried her face in her palms on the concrete steps outside Richmond’s DMV office on Wednesday, ruminating on how close she was to moving on.
In August, she was eligible to reinstate her license after missing the deadline to return the license plates of her totaled car — a penalty in Virginia that results in a suspended license. The only option then was a slot three months out in October. That meant three more months of relying on others to make it to her job at an area Food Lion.
But when she showed up Wednesday, they couldn’t find her appointment.
The next available was Jan. 28 — nearly six months after her first attempt.
“I’m just trying to get back to where I was,” she said. “Just trying to get through.”
On Friday, Virginia State Police spokeswoman Shelby Crouch said in a statement that VSP acknowledges the impact of the DMV backlog on residents and recommended people keep a copy of their appointment or payment in the car in case they’re pulled over.
Crouch added that “once the mandated grace period is over, state police will be enforcing the laws regarding licensing and registrations.”
In August, Northam proposed language in the budget that gives the DMV commissioner the ability to extend deadlines for such credentials as license and registration renewals for 90 days during states of emergency without the governor having to issue an executive order.
Whenever the General Assembly approves the budget, which is currently on the governor’s desk to be signed, it will go into effect, said Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky.
Until then, obstacles remain for parents getting their children’s learner’s permits and people renewing their licenses to get to work, transferring car titles and more within three months.
For how long is uncertain.