State Department pilot program ‘cut me off business,’ says Stamford passport photo store owner

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STAMFORD – Dozens of people line up outside the Connecticut Passport Agency office at 850 Canal St. in the south of the city every day. But since the beginning of September, only a handful of them have had their picture taken in the Passport Pro store next door.

Passport Pro owner Kurt Olson attributes the drop in foot traffic at his store to a pilot photo-taking program that resumed September 1 at the passport center, after the COVID-19 pandemic forced its suspension in March 2020 several weeks after the start of its deployment. outside.

If the situation does not change soon, Olson fears that Passport Pro could go bankrupt by the end of the year. Olson’s distress is compounded by his frustration with the lack of communication on the part of the Connecticut Passport Agency’s parent organization, the US Department of State, and his bewilderment as to why the Passport Center adds photography in its workload amid a massive national backlog of applications.

“They just cut me off from business by taking the photos themselves,” Olson said. “It’s like a faucet is turned off.”

In response to a request from Hearst Connecticut Media, the State Department declined to answer questions about Olson directly. But he confirmed through a spokesperson that he is running a Secure Live Photo pilot project across the United States, at 26 passport facilities with public counters – including the Stamford site, which is Connecticut’s only passport agency.

The photos are not contracted or made by third-party vendors, according to the spokesperson.

“During the pilot, we only take photos for clients who show up at our agencies without unacceptable photos or photos,” the spokesperson said in an email. “The Photo Pilot is designed to mitigate fraud, improve the candidate customer service experience and modernize our operations. We will continue to run Secure Live Photo as a pilot program as we collect and analyze data to determine the impact of the program and identify next steps.

Fight to stay in business

Having operated Passport Pro for the past 10 years, including eight years at his current location, the 62-year-old resident of Wilton Olson has sailed the past 18 grueling months.

Passport Pro was “essentially closed” between March 2020 and March 2021 due to the pandemic, he said. After resuming with “extremely limited business” it fully reopened in June.

The company survived on two loans from the Small Business Administration which Olson says are in total in the “six-figure range.” In addition, he received unemployment benefits.

Foot traffic at Passport Pro last summer was on average around 50% of pre-pandemic levels, a drop that Olson largely attributed to the reopening of the Connecticut Passport Agency with a walk-in-only policy. for applicants. But he believed he could survive because he expected the turnout to improve soon.

“I survived because of hard work,” said Olson, a holder of a BFA in photography from California College of the Arts. “I love this company. I am very good at it and I am very proud of it.

Olson said the demand had dissipated when the pilot returned next on September 1. With the Passport Agency taking photos again – for free – for those with rejected photos or without a portrait, these applicants no longer needed to go to Passport Pro, which charges $ 16.95 for a photo.

Prior to the pilot’s launch in February 2020, around 90% of Olson’s customers were applicants who visited him after the Passport Agency rejected the photos they brought. In total, he saw a daily average of about 40 to 50 customers in his approximately 100 square foot store. He said he could take and process a photo in a minute.

The State Department spokesperson said Secure Live Photo “has not increased wait times for Connecticut customers, and the number of applicants served is approximately five to seven per day.”

Wen Kai, a teacher from Manhattan, was one of those who had their photo taken inside the Passport Agency. He said authorities rejected the photo he brought because the background was too bright.

He needed the passport to be able to travel to London to meet his son, who is a student at Cambridge University.

“I thought they might tell me to go to the guy next door,” he told Hearst, waiting outside the passport center on September 24 to pick up his passport. “I imagine he (Olson) is quite upset because he’s moved here.”

A lack of communication from the State Department infuriated Olson even more. He says he ran into an employee of the Passport Agency at the end of August who answered his question by telling him that the pilot was going to restart soon. But Olson said no State Department official had ever contacted him about the next photo taken.

“They act like I don’t exist,” Olson said. “It’s insulting.”

The State Department spokesman said, “Programs such as Secure Live Photo are centrally managed by Passport Services in Washington, DC, and local management is under no obligation to contact photo providers regarding the photos. changes to our operations “.

Flock of applications

The State Department has resumed the pilot project as its passport agencies face a massive workload amid a resurgence in Americans’ overseas travel. At the start of the summer, the department was grappling with a reported backlog of nearly 2 million passport applications. Processing times are 16 to 18 weeks for routine applications and 10 to 12 weeks for expedited applications, according to some passport center websites.

“Why are you taking on additional services when you can’t even do your basic service, which is issuing passports to all applicants who need them? Said Olson.

Passport agencies accept two types of appointments. The first group includes those who need a passport to travel within 72 hours for an “eligible life or death emergency”. People with non-urgent “urgent travel requests” should make an appointment within three working days of their international travel.

Even under these conditions, the Connecticut Passport Agency still faces an overabundance of requests. On several occasions over the past week, dozens of people have lined up to present documents and collect their passports.

Many of the applicants who come to Stamford are residents of New York City. Out-of-state applicants interviewed by Hearst said they went to Stamford because it was the closest place they could make an appointment in time for their trips.

Holly Shallow, from Brooklyn, NY, had been trying since June to obtain a passport to visit family in Jamaica. Shallow’s first date at the Passport Agency on September 23 failed because the center temporarily closed that day, a development Shallow only learned about upon arriving in Stamford that morning. The setback forced Shallow to postpone his flight to Jamaica for one day and return to Stamford on September 24.

“My flight was for this morning at 8 am. September 24, while waiting on the passport collection line. “Today I got up at 3 am. Yesterday I got up at 3 am… It’s a very frustrating situation.”

Senator Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, reiterated his call for the State Department to expedite the processing of applications.

“While I understand the financial and personal pressure the pandemic has placed on the State Department, they need to do better,” Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “As the world opens up again, too many people in Connecticut are missing long-awaited meetings with loved ones overseas due to the passport backlog.

“This is why I called on the State Department to dedicate additional staff and resources to increase its capacity and reduce processing times to pre-pandemic levels. It will not only help people reconnect with family, friends and businesses overseas, it could create jobs here at home in the federal government. This is a good thing.”

Look for a resolution

To help remedy the situation, Olson contacted the offices of Murphy and other U.S. Senator from Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal last year.

A subsequent investigation by Blumenthal’s office into the program’s goals and its impact on Olson’s activities prompted a response last November from a State Department official who informed him of the launch of Secure Live Photo.

“I urge the State Department to limit its use of this pilot program, so that it does not affect the business of Mr. Olson and other similar small businesses across the country,” Blumenthal said in a statement. communicated.

Murphy declined to comment on Olson’s situation because his office does not comment on individual voter records.

In the meantime, Olson still sees a small number of clients who come before their dates and whose photos have not been rejected. He also takes photos for the passports of other countries. But he said Passport Pro may not last until 2022 if business doesn’t pick up quickly.

With obligations like paying off a mortgage and educating his son, who is in his final year at Dickinson College, Olson said the demise of Passport Pro would deal “a serious blow to my financial well-being.”

“Why does this pilot program have to be at Stamford?” Said Olson. “Can’t they just move it somewhere else where it doesn’t have that impact?” “

[email protected]; twitter: @paulschott


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