Line holders are paid to wait all night outside a motor vehicle office

  • >> Lauren Hard, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-10-20 17:52:11 BdST

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People wait outside the Motor Vehicle Commission office in Wallington, NJ, early in the morning, Sept 14, 2020. The Motor Vehicle Commission has faced an enormous backlog since reopening in early July, after being closed for four months because of the coronavirus pandemic. Jennifer S Altman/The New York Times

In a New Jersey suburb, a woman sets up a tent around 8 p.m. outside a state Motor Vehicle Commission office. She will spend the night there, accompanied by her 4-year-old son, until just before the office opens at 8 a.m. The woman, Sumbal Nadeem, doesn’t need a driver’s license or anything else from the agency.

But she does need money. She is being paid $150 to hold a place in line by a motorist who needs a car registration.

The pandemic has spawned a new class of worker in New Jersey. They are the line holders or line sitters who, for a fee, will wait for hours, sometimes all night, outside a branch of the Motor Vehicle Commission — which was closed for four months — until whoever hired them comes to take that place right before the office opens.

“I’ve been working every day, 12 hours a day,” said Nadeem, 23, who graduated last December from a community college. She is hoping to become a medical assistant, but has yet to find a job. “I barely get to sleep.”

The Motor Vehicle Commission has been overwhelmed by demand since it reopened in early July, after having shut down in March during the state’s coronavirus lockdown.

Even after making some services available online and pushing back the expiration dates for certain documents, the agency’s 39 locations — where paperwork is processed — have been inundated by customers. Lines stretch for blocks in the wee hours of the morning.

Because of capacity limits to protect public health, offices often start turning people away by mid- or late morning. The agency itself has been hit by the virus, with some offices forced to close for two weeks after employees tested positive.

Gov. Philip Murphy has acknowledged the aggravation many motorists have experienced, especially as temperatures drop. “Folks are frustrated by long lines, and so am I,” the governor recently told reporters. “We want to see those lines end as much as everyone.”

While these struggles have been maddening to many, for others they have created an opportunity to make money at a time when New Jersey has only added back about half of the 800,000 jobs it lost in March and April.

Websites like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace are filled with people offering to stand in line, charging fees ranging from $50 to $600.

Anthony Perez, 37, who lives in Hackensack, was laid off from his job as a designer for a Connecticut firm after the pandemic hit. He is still trying to qualify for unemployment benefits after being initially denied.

Now he is using the $80 to $200 he earns waiting in line overnight outside motor vehicle agency offices to help pay some of his bills.

“I’m just trying to feed my family right now,” Perez said. “I lost my job. What am I supposed to do? Eat or starve to death? Or get evicted?”

Motor Vehicle Commission offices are not always known for their efficiency even when times are normal. And New Jersey is not the only state where the outbreak has created an enormous backlog that agencies are having a hard time wading through. Long waits have been reported in Ohio and Nevada, and motor vehicle agencies in 39 states have reopened only to people who make appointments.

In New Jersey, the chief administrator of the Motor Vehicle Commission, Sue Fulton, said the agency was trying to improve the situation by setting up a ticketing system for walk-in customers and allowing more transactions, like certain driver’s license renewals, to be done online.

The agency is actually processing more transactions every week than it was during the same period last year, Fulton said, as it tries to play catch-up. The wait time for some services, like vehicle inspections, is down to pre-pandemic levels.

As for the lines, Fulton said, “We have to keep working at it until we get that fixed.”

Not everyone who has been paid to wait in line is out of work, but they say the extra money has come in handy.

Jeff Mauro, a high school teacher in Red Bank, had the idea to charge people after the odyssey he endured trying to get his daughter’s car registered shortly after motor vehicle offices reopened.

First, he showed up at 7 am at the Hazlet office and, seeing the line, realised he would never make it inside. The next day, he showed up at 5 am and was given ticket No. 225 of the 250 that were handed out. He didn’t finish the process until 5 pm.

“While I was in line I was thinking to myself, ‘Somebody would probably pay you to get here early and get them a spot so they don’t have to waste their day,’ ” Mauro said.

So, he advertised on various websites and spent part of the summer as a line holder, earning more than $2,500, which he used to boost his income. He said the experience was a lot more tolerable than he had imagined.

“It almost feels like we’re all in this together,” he said. “If you want to get up and take a walk or go to your car real quick, nobody’s jumping in your spot. People are staying their 6 feet apart. They’re very respectful of everyone around them.”

Outside some offices, line savers are not the only ones earning cash. Sean Boles, who lives in Washington Township and had been furloughed from his truck driving job for four months before being recalled, made more than $2,400 waiting in lines at the Wallington office, where he noticed people selling food.

“People bring McDonald’s dollar breakfast sandwiches, and they’re bringing them by the shopping bag,” he said. “They’re selling them for like $3 on line, $4.”

Not surprisingly perhaps, line holders say not everyone is happy to discover that some people are paying others to avoid the big lines.

“They have to understand that there are people who are working 12 hours and they cannot come like us and wait in line,” Nadeem said.

Those who have paid others to wait say the price is worth it. Alex Tholl, who lives in Morristown and owns a design firm, paid a line holder $150 to take his place in line to register his new car.

He had driven past an agency office a few times, he said, and “saw how tremendously awful it was.”

“I can’t be waiting in line for four hours,” Tholl added. “I hate to sound shrewd, but my time, you know — four hours of my time is worth more than standing in line.”

Anthony Salgado Jr., a high school graduate from Succasunna, had been trying to join the state’s carpenters’ union, but the outbreak made it difficult to take the necessary classes. So, Salgado decided to cover some of his expenses by advertising himself as a line holder on Craigslist. He charges as much as $200 to hold a spot.

“I sit there with my mask on and watch TV on my phone for like five hours,” he said.

So far, he has made more than $2,000. “It pays a lot better than minimum wage,” he said.

© 2020 New York Times News Service