This has been a summer of discontent at driver's license offices across Oklahoma as applicants often must line up in the pre-dawn hours or miss out on a license altogether.
Nearly 100 people were lined up on the sidewalk outside the Department of Public Safety's driving exam station in Yukon before its 7 a.m. opening Thursday. This day, a dozen were allowed to come in for testing; the rest were sent home. There was a similar situation at the Edmond office on Friday.
State officials blamed the lines on successive years of budget cuts, which have meant cutbacks in staff and even office closures in some rural parts of the state.
“This is our fourth time to try and get her in,” said Connie Jarel, who stood outside the Yukon office Thursday morning with her 17-year-old granddaughter, Connar. “We've come at 4 (a.m.), 4:30, and finally I told her last night we'll be over here at midnight.”
The Jarels, determined to make it this time, drove in 50 miles from Binger and showed up at 1:30 a.m., securing the second place in line. They spent the early morning hours chatting with strangers and napping on the sidewalk.
“By 3:15 they had 10 people already here,” Jarel said. “If you're No. 10 here, you start over.”
The waiting rooms at exam stations across the state have frequently been a place of monotony, but new applicants say the process this summer has never been more frustrating.
Most offices affected
Lines such as the one in Yukon are common before doors open at the department's offices in the Oklahoma City metro area. With closures in some rural areas, the backup is starting to affect nearly all the offices.
“This may be the worst summer that I've seen,” said Jeff Hankins, director of driver's license services for the department. “Every one of our offices are just overwhelmed with the number of people that are coming in. We can only accommodate so many in a day.”
Hankins could not quantify the surge in license applicants, but said three straight years of cuts is demonstrated easiest by reductions in personnel.
The number of examiners and clerks at licensing offices decreased from 152 in 2009 to 105 this year. That reflects successive budget cuts departmentwide from $97.2 million to $84.9 million over the same period.
Since 90 percent of the driver's license services' budget is personnel, cuts have had a huge impact.
“The state offered voluntary buyouts to people, and we had several of our examiners take those buyouts, and then we can't replace those positions for three years,” Hankins said. “In the Oklahoma City office we should have 11 examiners, but because of that and with vacation and sick leave we've been down to as few as five or six.”
Frustration for all
At 7 a.m. on the dot, Jack Lyles, one of three examiners at the Yukon office, stepped out onto the sidewalk and spread the bad news. A quick show of hands indicated most people — the Jarels included — were here to take their driving test. Lyle counted off to 12, and told the rest it was time to pack up and go home. There isn't enough time in the day — or examiners on site — to take care of any more than that before closing, he said.
“Guys, I'm really sorry — I wish we could do more,” he told the crowd. Back behind his work counter, he said he doesn't let the cussing ruin his day.
“I love my job, I want to help,” he said. “We don't like the situation either, I promise you.”
Those in line, though, aren't buying that.
“This is ridiculous,” said Saundra Griffis, in line since 4:30 a.m. with her 16-year-old son, Isaac. “We woke up about 4:15 — I had a blanket and pillow, so I laid down for a little while and slept on the concrete while he waited.”
The Griffises learned of the licensing backup the way most people do — by showing up one day and getting turned away. Saundra Griffis, a teacher in Bethany, said Isaac has a new car and is eager to get licensed. They lined up at 4:30 a.m. Thursday because when they showed up around 5:15 a.m. Wednesday they didn't make it.
“We'll come back at midnight — that's how desperate I am,” she said. “I'm tired of waking up, it's three mornings in a row now.”
Employee shortages have forced some offices to outright close. Closures in Altus and Duncan have forced applicants from across southwest Oklahoma, for example, to seek licensing at one office in Lawton, where the wait is now longer than ever.
There were eight examiners at the office in Lawton just a couple years ago, Hankins said. Now the office is down to three.
Compounding the problem are the usual frustrations: One can't make an appointment via phone at most offices, so some stand in line just to schedule a driving test two or three weeks out. Others forget one or more of the many pieces of paperwork required to be licensed. Still others wait all day only to fail their test and have to start over again.
Hirings are planned
The state is well aware of the problem and is working to formulate a solution, Hankins said. An increased budget for this fiscal year has allowed the department to hire seven new full-time examiners. An additional seven are expected to be hired next summer, he said.
“We're trying to put those people out in the metro areas where we only have one person working an office,” he said. “We're trying to get it so if someone takes off for vacation or sick leave we don't have to close our office.”
Part of the problem might be the lack of interest in the work, he said.
Though they draw state benefits, examiners earn only $32,000 a year and take a lot of abuse. Examiners in Oklahoma have not received a raise in six years.
Only four people applied for recent openings at the Woodward and Hugo offices, Hankins said. Ultimately, none were hired.
A bill passed by the Legislature this spring will allow driving instructors at public and private schools to apply to be a designated examiner so that students can take their tests there, he said.
The department also is looking into ways the Internet can be used to speed up the process, including the scheduling of appointments and the submission and verification of required paperwork, he said.