Wait times at many of Maine’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles locations have skyrocketed in recent weeks, as a perfect storm of staff vacancies, increased traffic and new Real ID requirements have forced 2,244 Mainers to wait in line for over 100 minutes since the beginning of July, according to data provided by the BMV. Anecdotal reports have some waiting much longer.

Compared to the same time period last year, the state’s BMV branches have seen an additional 8,000 customers since July 1, when they began issuing Real IDs. While the state’s move to comply with the federal Real ID law is a significant factor in that spike, average wait times are also being exasperated because branches are operating with 21 percent of their staff positions vacant, which the office of Maine’s Secretary of State says stems from low starting pay.

This is emblematic of the broader trend across state agencies, whose workers report significant problems with recruiting and retaining staff, owing in part to wages that are not competitive with the private sector.

‘There’s a million other things I’d rather be doing’

In years past, Mainers have expressed pride in the efficiency of the BMV. “The best part about living in Maine? My license renewal at the BMV only took 20 minutes from walking through the door to photo,” Kathy Rich exclaimed on Twitter in 2012. 

But in the last few weeks, the tone of comments about Maine’s BMV on social media changed dramatically. “Dealing with the Maine DMV is like being in the fifth level of hell,” wrote Twitter user cocofurst on July 10. 

At the Portland facility on Monday, Falmouth resident Madeline, who declined to give her last name, told Beacon that she took time off work and waited almost two hours to get a veteran decal for her vehicle. “This was supposed to be just a simple transaction,” she said. “I should have known when I couldn’t find a spot in the parking lot.” 

Several people entered the Portland facility and immediately decided to leave after seeing the large number of people waiting for their number to be called. 

In Bangor, one person who arrived when the branch opened at 8 a.m. on Tuesday reported waiting 90 minutes to be seen. By 9:30 a.m., those coming through the door and taking a number found themselves behind 40 other people, with a line stretching out the glass doors of the office and into the hallway of the Airport mall.  

In Scarborough, where only two of the five windows were staffed on Monday, wait times exceeded two hours. All of the seats were taken in the branch, forcing many people to wait standing against the wall.  

At several locations, staff were directing people to go online to process certain documents, or to avoid coming in during the midday rush, when many people take time from work. But not all documents, such as registrations and new IDs, can be obtained online. And for the elderly, to whom the internet may be inaccessible, or to immigrants, who often have to present paperwork in person, this is often not an option either. Hourly workers, who often have to squeeze such errands in between shifts or forgo pay, often have less flexibility or predictability in their schedules than those making higher incomes. 

Lyman resident Tim Kiley, who works the second shift at a window installation company, spent almost five hours at the Scarborough facility last Friday, but was forced to leave to start his shift. He returned Monday and had already been waiting two hours when he spoke with Beacon. “There’s a million other things I’d rather be doing right now,” he said. 

The average wait time at the Portland branch from July 1 to Aug. 20 jumped from nearly 27 minutes in 2018 to nearly 60 minutes in 2019, according to the Maine Department of Secretary of State. In Bangor, the average time jumped from 16 to 55 minutes during the same period. 

Six of Maine’s 13 BMV branches reported more than 100 customers having waited over 100 minutes since July. Portland leads that category, with 689 people having reported waiting that long, followed by Bangor with 539, Scarborough with 347, Kennebunk with 314, Springvale with 129 and Lewiston with 101. 

Only one person reported waiting over 100 minutes across all 13 branches in 2018 during the same period. 

“By far, the most significant number of complaints we get are about the number of closed windows at any given office,” Kristen Muszynski, a spokeswoman for Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, said in a statement emailed to Beacon.  “Historically, we have been able to cover vacant positions with other branches or districts. Over many years, vacancies seemed to rotate by district, but at this time all the districts are short. The Southern District has five vacancies, the Central District has five, and the North has four. There are no personnel available to cover other offices.”

83% of state employees say agencies have difficulty recruiting, retaining staff

Vacancies are not uncommon across the state’s various agencies, and compensation is commonly a factor. 

In a survey conducted by their union last year, 83 percent of the state workers who responded said their agencies had difficulty recruiting and retaining staff. This has led to persistent shortages in snowplow drivers, 911 dispatchers and caseworkers in child-protective services. 

At the time, leaders of the Maine State Employees Association, the public sector union which represents more than 10,000 executive branch workers, said the crisis was in part because state government pay has failed to stay competitive with private-sector wages. Across-the-board wage increases as well as cost-of-living and longevity increases were major demands in renegotiations between the union and Governor Janet Mills’ administration, out of which a new contract was ratified last month. 

As part of an overall philosophy to shrink the size and role of state government, former Governor Paul LePage over his two terms decreased the number of state employees, which total 12,358 workers in 2010, by 1,600, in part by imposing a hiring freeze in executive branch agencies. In addition, he passed top-end income tax cuts, estate tax cuts and corporate carve-outs that economists say continue to constrain the delivery of services across the state government. 

The BMV is attempting to improve wait times by making new hires, but the process is slow. “We just received authorization for three full time employees and six limited period positions — we’ll see the impact next year as the staff won’t be trained in time to have an impact during this busy season,” said Muszynski. 

“We would like to remind the public that the federal government will not be enforcing Real ID requirements until October 2020, so they have more than a year to come in and upgrade to a Real ID if they choose to do so,” she continued. “Wait times are shortest if you avoid summertime, Mondays and mid-day, if at all possible. We want to thank the public for their patience as we roll out this new form of identification and work on filling our vacancies.” 

The preceding originally appeared on mainebeacon.com, a website and podcast created by progressive group the Maine People’s Alliance. 

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