Passport applications will be processed on a “first in, first out” basis. Risch estimated it will take six to eight weeks to clear the backlog dating from late February.
The 1.7 million pending applications represent a little more than the average workload every month. Only then will they start moving new applications, which Risch said will take at least eight weeks to begin processing. Before operations were reduced, most passports were processed in four to six weeks.
The State Department sharply curtailed passport services around the world starting in March, when most employees started teleworking amid the coronavirus crisis. Security considerations made it difficult to conduct passport processing from home offices, and many workers were reassigned to help arrange repatriation flights for Americans stuck overseas when countries began closing their borders in response to the pandemic.
For the most part, the only passports processed in the interim have been for the U.S. armed forces and medical workers seeking to assist covid-19 patients in other countries. Passport services in most embassies and consulates abroad are still accepting only emergency applications.
The phased reopening means older workers and those with underlying health conditions have still not returned to their offices. Risch said an additional 150 employees have been temporarily assigned to work on passport applications, and he expects the pace to quicken.
“Each facility is gradually ramping up operations based on local conditions and CDC guidelines,” he said. “As more agencies have additional staff returning across the country, we are aggressively increasing our processing capability and doing everything we can to return to normal as quickly as possible.”
Returning employees will be provided personal protective equipment and will be asked to maintain social distancing, he said.
One reason it will take time to catch up is that passports are considered official identification documents that must be handled and printed in secure facilities.
The State Department is starting to develop a backup plan to avoid more interruptions if the pandemic continues and possibly worsens in coming months as some experts expect, Risch said.
“We are looking at ways to be more resilient if faced with these challenges in the future,” he said.
About 18 million new U.S. passports are issued every year, but the uncertainty around playing catch-up and the severity of the pandemic make it difficult to predict whether that figure will be reached this year.