March 2, 2024
License plates. Covid-19. The Department of Corrections. Three odd topics to put together, but when the pandemic hit, the production was disrupted.

License plates. COVID-19. The Department of Corrections. Three odd topics to put together, but when the pandemic hit, the production of all plates was disrupted.
I’m not sure how many of you realize that incarcerated individuals still make our license plates in Washington. It’s a contract that is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
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“They contract with us to produce the license plates, everything from the embossed plates to the digital plates and vanity plates that you see on the road,” said Deputy Director of Correctional Industries for the Department of Corrections Todd Cunnington. “We produce all of them for the state.”
A unit of nearly three dozen works in the plate factory in Walla Walla.
And as we talked about a lot during the height of the pandemic, Washington’s prisons were hit hard by Covid.
“At different times, you would have an outbreak within the facility, and that would cause a unit closure,” Cunnington said. “Those closures, on average, seemed to take two weeks to sometimes up to a month, and at that point, it would basically halt our production on the license plates.”
Plate manufacturing fell well behind during the pandemic because of those frequent closures. There was a delay in maintenance and then there was a shortage of materials that added to the delays.
The Department of Licensing still has a warning about the delays on its website, but Cunnington said they hope to catch up by next month.
“We’re about to a place where we are fully caught up with the Department of Licensing, but it has taken some time,” Cunnington said.
But that’s not where the story ends. A listener named Chase reached out to me because he’s looking at nearly six months without getting his plate. He’s about to return to the DMV to get another temporary plate as he waits.
He was getting a specialty plate, where the issue gets really pronounced. Any special plate, whether a vanity plate, a Husky plate, or an Orca plate, uses a different machine.  That machine went down in June.
“We had technicians come in and everybody we could think of to resurrect the equipment that we had,” Cunnington said. “It would not go, so we’ve had to contract out to have the sheeting, what the images are put onto, to have that produced for us.”
That printing is now being done on the East Coast and being shipped to Walla Walla for application to plates.
There’s no mention of those specifics in the DOL warning. That’s something Chase wishes the DOL had been upfront about, especially since the state cashed his check for the plates months ago.
The DOL said managers thought it best to keep the message generic since the delays have been caused by multiple issues. A new machine is on the way and should be running this summer.
“We anticipate being fully operational with that equipment by the first quarter of this new fiscal year, right around August or September,” Cunnington said.
Until then, drivers should continue to expect delays in those specialty plates, but the issue appears close to getting resolved.
Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.
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