11 investigates has learned PennDOT applications for driver and vehicle services backlogged so much during COVID-19 that some people have had to wait nearly a year just to get the paperwork processed. The delays impacted everyone, including private citizens waiting for license plates, businesses that have fleets of vehicles and even emergency vehicles that had to operate with expired tags.
More than just frustration
Kevin Hunter owns Hunter Trucking in 84, Pennsylvania, which transports heavy equipment across the country. He has 22 employees and said the PennDOT backlog almost forced him to shut down his business.
“It’s more than just a piece of paper on a desk. People’s families depend on us getting our proper paperwork,” Hunter told 11 Investigates’ Angie Moreschi.
Hunter said he came within days of having to close down because of a delay in getting yearly registration tags for his 16 rigs.
“There’s a lot riding on my shoulders and a lot of people depending on me to make their living and be able to feed their family,” he said.
He said he sent his paperwork into the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation — like he always does in February, but he didn’t receive an invoice like he normally does to pay his bill. After two months went by, he started to panic that he wouldn’t get his new registration in time for the June 1 deadline. He said with expired tags, his business can’t legally operate.
“Basically, my guys and I become unemployed. We can’t move,” he said.
License plate delay
John Biedrzycki of Upper St. Clair also faced a long delay after sending in paperwork for a title and license plate for an antique car to be bought.
“I paid the $100 fee. Sent in the application. Nothing,” he said.
Even more frustrating, he said, was trying to get a hold of someone at PennDOT.
“You would call PennDOT. They’d put you on hold for 10 minutes, and they would disconnect the call,” he explained, saying that happened to him six times.
Eventually, Biedrzycki said he paid a second time for a title when the state couldn’t find his original paperwork, which he sent to the state in February 2020. He finally got the title over the summer and ordered a specialty plate in August 2020. But by March 2021, he still hadn’t received the plate.
“The situation was that they were cashing the checks and not providing the license plates,” he said.
At that point, Biedrzycki contacted his state Rep. Natalie Mihalek for help.
Mihalek said her office received multiple complaints about the delays from constituents, including local notaries, who process dozens of applications for PennDOT.
“We’re talking about people waiting months on titles and license plates. It’s been a huge frustration, a huge concern for our constituents,” Mihalek said, calling the delays “completely unacceptable.”
Mihalek said delays early in the pandemic were understandable but believes that excuse is no longer reasonable.
“They’re taking money and not delivering a service,” she said. “How many months are we into this now? Fifteen, 16 months, and we can’t get our act together?”
Emergency vehicles impacted
Even emergency vehicles have been impacted. 11 investigates learned fire trucks at the Bellevue Volunteer Fire Department had to operate with expired plates because the department had been waiting on registration renewals from the state since March.
The Bellevue fire chief was going to talk to us on camera about the PennDOT delay with his fire trucks, but he backed out, telling us the messenger service he uses to submit his paperwork asked him not to speak publicly. He said a representative told him they fear backlash from the state that could hurt their business.
It’s a fear 11 Investigates has heard repeatedly from multiple notaries we talked with who’ve asked to remain anonymous. They said they’re concerned the state will retaliate by conducting extra audits that tap their resources and time.
Lawrenceville Notary Jeff Hegnar, who owns Jeff’s Notary Service, agreed to talk with us but also expressed concern.
“I’ll be honest. I’m a little afraid to talk on camera as well,” he said.
But Hegner said he agreed to talk because he and his customers are frustrated that delays have gone on for so long.
“People are definitely frustrated. Wouldn’t you be if you owned a car? And your like, ‘I can’t drive it,’” he said. “Some of the workers are working from home, so they’re not even in the facility. It’s been a backlog.”
Hegner said processing paperwork has been a lot harder, with many PennDOT employees in Harrisburg still working from home. He also said getting a hold of workers when you have a problem has been difficult.
“It’s almost impossible,” he said.
In one recent case, he said he finally got a customer’s registration in July — after waiting 3 1/2 months and paying twice to get it done.
“The main issue is getting paperwork back. It’s definitely a big frustration of the whole thing,” Hegner said.
Mihalek has been calling for PennDOT to bring employees back in person for months.
“It’s time to get back to work. It’s time to go back to the office and get out of this
backlog,” she said.
PennDOT digging out
We called PennDOT to ask about the backlog problem and what it’s doing to fix it.
No one would talk to us on camera, but a spokesperson sent 11 Investigates an email:
“During the pandemic, we did experience some sporadic backlogs, however, those backlogs have been addressed. We have not received an influx of complaints from customers, but when a customer does reach out with a concern, we immediately review and address it. If you have specific customers who require assistance, we will be happy to reach out to them individually to assist if you are able to provide contact information for them.
“In reference to your question regarding customers having difficulty reaching us, we are experiencing personnel shortages with our contracted customer call center. We continue to take steps to address this as quickly as possible. Customers can also contact PennDOT if they experience difficulties by using the Contact Us feature on our website – www.dmv.pa.gov.
“We apologize for any inconvenience being experienced by our customers.”
11 Investigates also wanted to know when PennDOT employees at the Harrisburg offices will return to work full time, as many have worked from home during the pandemic. A spokesperson emailed us with a response about all employees statewide but repeatedly ignored our questions asking specifically about employees in Harrisburg, where much of the paperwork is processed.
For example, 11 Investigates asked: “What level of staffing is currently back fulltime in PennDOT’s Harrisburg offices? And on what date does PennDOT plan to have 100% of those employees back in the office?”
PennDOT’s response is as follows:
“PennDOT began bringing Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS) staff back on March 20, 2020. In May of 2020 the majority of DVS staff were back in their worksite. The remaining staff who were eligible to telework have been teleworking since the early days of the pandemic will return to the office beginning July 22, 2021. Moving forwards many of those who are qualified to telework will continue on a part time telework schedule.”
Despite several follow-up emails, PennDOT has not answered the question regarding how many Harrisburg employees are back in the office full time and how many are continuing to work from home.
Some problems persist
Several notaries told 11 Investigates that PennDOT employees who process paperwork in the Harrisburg offices did start returning to work in person in June and that the problem has got better, but some problems have persisted.
One example was the Bellevue fire trucks’ registration. It was not until 11 Investigates contacted PennDOT to specifically ask about the emergency vehicles having expired plates that someone finally contacted the fire chief to resolve the issue.
Just days after our email to PennDOT, the fire chief sent 11 Investigates this text on Friday:
“Got my new Fire dept registration cards emailed to me today! "
In a follow-up phone call, Chief Randy Dailey told Moreschi, “Thank you very much for your help.”
The chief continues to wait, however, for a salvage title for his personal vehicle, which he applied for in January.
For others, things are beginning to improve. Just days before the plates on Hunter’s trucks were about to expire, he finally got his invoice from the state.
“May 26. That’s when they finally sent me my invoice,” Hunter said.
Since it was right before the Memorial Day holiday weekend, with just three business days before his plates would expire, he was taking no chances. He drove all the way to Harrisburg to pay his bill in time and discovered he was not the only trucker to do it.
“I got there at 6:30 in the morning thinking I was going to be the early bird, and there were guys there at 5 o’clock. There had to be 60 people in line,” he said.
Hunter was relieved to finally get it taken care of but also angry it came down to this.
“Honestly, it’s been a nightmare,” he said. “You’re messing with people’s livelihoods!”
And Biedrzycki finally got his plate, nine months after first applying, when Mihalek stepped in to help and picked up the plate for him in Harrisburg.
“The totality of the circumstances. It was kind of a train wreck,” Biedrzycki said, summing up his experience.
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