PEARL, Miss. — Getting a new driver’s license in Mississippi can be a multiday ordeal with long lines at Department of Public Safety stations that are short-staffed.
“It’s just a mess, having to wait in line like this,” said 18-year-old Stuart Alcorn of Raymond, who was back at a station outside Pearl last week for his fifth time.
He said that after waiting one day, examiners would not administer his road test because it was raining. After waiting several hours three other days, he said he didn’t get to take either his written test or his road test because too many people were in front of him and the office closed before everyone was served.
“There’s only 30 people ahead of me now,” Alcorn said as he studied for the written exam Wednesday. “Hopefully, I’ll get in.”
Alcorn wasn’t the only one frustrated. Debbie Smith of Jackson and her 18-year-old son, Zachary Smith, went to the Pearl station Tuesday afternoon but left without getting served. They arrived back at the station at 7:20 a.m. Wednesday, 40 minutes before it opened, then waited nearly two hours before he was called to take his test.
“They absolutely need more help here,” said Debbie Smith, a home health worker who sometimes drives past the station and sees people waiting outside.
Lines are a problem in other parts of the state, as well. On the Gulf Coast, people have waited hours to get licensed.
The Mississippi Department of Public Safety is requesting more money to fill vacant jobs for driver’s license examiners, but it’s unclear whether legislators will fulfill that request. Negotiators are in the final days of setting the overall state budget for the year that begins July 1.
“It’s hard to say right now,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Buck Clarke, a Republican from Hollandale. “We’re going to look at it.”
The Department of Public Safety says it has 134 jobs for regular driver’s license examiners, but 48 are vacant. It has 44 jobs for commercial driver’s license examiners, but 14 are vacant.
The department is seeking money to fill the vacant jobs and to add 70 new regular examiners and 25 new commercial examiners, in addition to other new employees to be supervisors or to be greeters who make sure people have all the documents they need as they enter license stations.
Public Safety Commissioner Marshall Fisher said he knows getting a driver’s license is a necessity, and he knows about problems with long lines.
“I’ve been aware of it since the day I walked in the door,” said Fisher, who has led the Department of Public Safety since early 2017. “I’ve gone to a couple of these driver services offices myself, sat down, watched, talked to some of the people.”
Maj. Ken Brown, the department’s director of driver services, said filling the license examiner jobs is difficult because of low pay. The regular examiner’s job starts at about $23,500 a year, and the top salary after decades on the job is about $41,600. Commercial examiners, who have more training, are paid about $3,000 a year more.
Brown said short staffing is only part of the problem creating long lines. He said the licensing process has become more time-consuming because of a federal requirement for increased security standards in issuing driver’s licenses and identification cards.
In the state’s biggest population hub, the metro Jackson area, the Pearl station is the only one that administers written or road tests for people to get a new, regular license. New commercial licenses for people such as truckers and renewal of existing regular licenses are handled other places, also with long wait times. And people who already hold regular licenses can renew them at the Department of Public Safety’s main office by Interstate 55 in Jackson.
Because of the prohibitively long waiting times in Pearl, it’s common for people to drive an hour or more to seek shorter lines in smaller towns. Even then, there’s no guarantee the station in the smaller town will be open.
On March 12, about a dozen people stood in line outside a driver’s license station in the small town of Walnut Grove, waiting for it to open at 8 a.m. A sign taped to the door said the office was closed that day because of a “temporary personnel shortage.” It said people could go to the nearest stations, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) to the east in Newton, or 60 miles (97 kilometers) to the west in Pearl.
Charleen Sproles and her 16-year-old daughter, Macy, live near Jackson. With Macy on spring break, they left home before dawn and traveled more than an hour to the Walnut Grove station.
“We were first in line at 7:45,” Charleen Sproles said. She said the sign was up, but it wasn’t entirely clear until 8 a.m. that the office was closed that day. The mother and daughter then went on to Newton, farther from home, for Macy to take her road test and get her license.