Washington is grappling with a statewide license-plate shortage fueled by a decrease in production by the Department of Corrections brought on by the pandemic.

The shortage has led some licensing agencies to issue temporary paper permits for passenger vehicles. Licensing for trucks, trailers, and motorcycles have not been impacted.

Paper permits are valid for 60 days and can be displayed the same way as temporary plates for recently purchased vehicles.

The DOC has experienced issues since last summer, when compliance with social-distancing requirements slowed production, according to spokesperson Rachel Ericson. To address the issue, the agency has increased staffing and started outsourcing some production on July 31.

“These measures are expected to improve plate-shortage issues sometime this fall,” Ericson said Monday.

Washington State Department of Licensing spokesperson Rob Wieman said he expects the license-plate supply chain to be fixed by late September. He said the only counties to report low inventories are Thurston and Clallam counties.


The Thurston County Auditor’s Office issued a news release Wednesday notifying residents about the issuance of paper permits. The office, which oversees licensing subagents that handle licensing services across the county, has been instructed by the state to prioritize the “small remaining inventory” for cars sold at dealerships.

The shortage comes at a time when car sales have increased, Thurston County Auditor Mary Hall said Monday.

Washington State auditors have known about the production challenges for a while, and Thurston County, she said, has done a good job “juggling” inventory.

Most licensing offices had less that 200 plates before the county received a shipment of 1,000 plates on Friday — around three weeks worth, according to Hall.

“We weren’t really expecting a shipment, so it was a pleasant surprise,” she said.

Temporary paper permits may also be issued in Clark County, according to a release Monday by Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey.


“While we haven’t heard for certain when metal plates will be in full supply, we hope our customers are patient while we work through this,” Kimsey said in a statement.

License plates first began to be manufactured by individuals incarcerated at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla in 1923. It’s now one of 43 prison factories around the country that produce plates for 40 states and the federal government.

A project by The Seattle Times examined how the Washington Department of Corrections has tried to profit from incarcerated individuals working in prison factories.

Thirty individuals at the Walla Wall penitentiary and nine at the Monroe Correctional Complex work in license-plate factories run by Washington State Correctional Industries. More than a half-million license plates, including general registration and vanity plates, are produced annually for the state’s Department of Licensing.