As America turns 242 on the Fourth of July, I thought I’d regale you with more birthday stories. This time, not my own, but others who “celebrated” at the Registry of Motor Vehicles trying to get a Real ID license.
This is the new driver’s license you can only get in person, and it turns out I wasn’t the only pathetic soul who spent her birthday waiting hours in line to get one. I’m not sure whose bright idea it was, but in Massachusetts licenses expire on your birthday.
When I shared my June birthday to remember, readers reacted with their own stories marking the occasion with strangers at the RMV. Two anecdotes really take the cake, and both involve a marriage certificate (or lack thereof). I share these horror stories not to beat up on a beleaguered RMV, but in the hope that others facing a license renewal can learn something and perhaps lessen their own pain.
We all expect a line at the Registry, the epitome of unwieldy bureaucracy. You can tolerate an hour of waiting for a simple transaction, but when a flight to Chicago is shorter, then we’ve got a problem. In fairness, the RMV says wait times have improved since these incidents occurred.
The first cautionary tale comes from Claire Silva, who made four trips to three RMV and AAA offices over the course of two days in April, including on her birthday.
Since the end of March wait times at the RMV have shot up because of new software installed to issue Real IDs. Add in a slew of new federal requirements to obtain this form of identification, and you have a recipe for chaos. None of us would bother except for the fact that starting in October 2020 a Real ID will be required for domestic flights and entrance into federal buildings (unless you want to carry your passport).
Silva’s saga begins the day before her 61st birthday — well, because she wanted to avoid celebrating it at the RMV.
She filled out her paperwork online, which Registry officials strongly recommend to speed up the process. She showed up at around 9 a.m. at the Attleboro branch, only to find a line already snaking out of the entrance.
It took Silva nearly two hours to make it to the front, only for the RMV greeter to ask her: “Do you have a marriage certificate?”
Of course, she didn’t have it handy. Silva has been married to the same man for 28 years, but if the name on your current credential is different than on your birth certificate, you must have documentation of the name change if you’re seeking a Real ID. In Silva’s case, a marriage certificate would do the trick.
You need four specific documents to get a Real ID, and a W-2 pay stub counts as one unless it doesn’t contain your full Social Security number. Silva’s W-2 only listed the last four digits so without all the numbers, the RMV wouldn’t accept it. (This detail has tripped up other readers as well, so considered yourself warned.)
Silva drove home to Taunton to retrieve her marriage certificate and then decided to try her luck at the Raynham AAA, which can also process Real ID licenses. She was told the wait would be 3½ hours, so she then drove to the Taunton RMV, only to find another crush of people.
“I am fuming,” recalled Silva. “I can’t believe this.”
Silva — an accounting payroll specialist for a medical supply company — also couldn’t take any more time off from work that day. Like the movie “Groundhog Day,” Silva was back at the Attleboro RMV the next morning. Sure enough, there was another line.
She waited an hour and a half to get a number from the greeter and then another two hours before making it to the counter.
She got her new license, but it came at a hefty price. She ending up having to use seven hours of sick time. “I would like to ask Governor Baker if he will reimburse me for the 7 hours’ loss of work that week, which comes to $136.50.”
At least Silva got what she came for. Amanda Linehan did not.
Linehan, who is the communications manager for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, spent her 36th birthday in April at the Saugus AAA.
Even though she was about 20th person in line, she was told it would be a four-hour wait. She had come prepared, bringing what she called a “survival pack” consisting of a smoothie, plenty of snacks (popcorn and applesauce), a book, and a magazine. She brought work, too, but couldn’t get much done because the Wi-Fi was terrible.
“We were there for so long it ended up being a support group,” Linehan recalled. “I got to know every single person by name. When someone’s number got called, the whole place erupted in applause.”
Strangers sang “Happy Birthday” to her, and she learned quickly about common mistakes such as showing up with laminated Social Security cards. The RMV and AAA have to scan in your documents, and they won’t accept any laminated documents.
When it was Linehan’s turn, she presented all her documents, including a Social Security card, a birth certificate, and her current license. But if she wanted the Real ID, she would need to produce a marriage certificate because she had taken husband’s last name.
There was no way she was doing this again. Linehan asked to be issued a regular license.
“It just felt like it had been a waste of time,” said Linehan. “I am very organized. I do communications for a living. There was a better way to get people ready for this.”
The Registry began warning drivers months in advance about the Real ID license. After the rollout of the new software and licensing process, Governor Baker said that wait times would be bad for several weeks, but my own experience and that of others indicate that problems have persisted.
State officials insist that the service is improving. When I came in the week of June 4, about 21 percent of customers experienced wait times of more than 60 minutes, according to state data. By last week, that number had fallen to about 10 percent of customers.
If I had to do it over again, I would have gone straight to an AAA office. As a member, I can get my licensed renewed, including the Real ID; I’ve advised many readers to go there after hearing about more manageable lines. If you go to the RMV, I would bring extra documentation just in case one form of proof is rejected. I also would have avoided coming on a Monday, when the RMV tends to be busier.
With Real ID forcing more visits to the RMV, I predict people will keep spending their birthdays there. At least give out some cupcakes.
Correction: Due to a reporter’s error, previous versions of this story misidentified the Saugus office where Amanda Linehan spent her birthday. It is an AAA office.