'I have no money': debt collection continues in US despite pandemic

Michael Sainato
Photograph: Pixsooz/Alamy Stock Photo

Veronica Cavalli was at home in New York City last week, laid off from her job amid the Covid-19 pandemic and, as instructed by New York’s governor, trying to minimize her contact with others to halt the spread of the virus.

When supplies ran low she sent her teenage children to the grocery store only to discover her debit card wasn’t working. She checked her account. It was thousands of dollars overdrawn.

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Cavalli suspected fraud and after spending hours on the phone with her bank trying to find out what happened, she was informed a court judgment had been made against her by a creditor to garnish her wages directly from her bank account for credit card debt she accrued a few years ago while her husband, who is now disabled, was experiencing a debilitating illness.

“I didn’t know anything about the wage garnishment until it was posted on my account,” said Cavalli. “I have zero funds. I have no money. I’m at the breaking point.”

One out of every six Americans has an unpaid medical bill on their credit report, amounting to $81bn in debt nationwide. Every year, about 530,000 Americans who file bankruptcy cite medical debt as a contributing factor.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, several legal groups across the US are calling on federal and state governments to halt private and public debt collection, including wage garnishment, and preventing any federal stimulus checks to Americans from being garnished by debt collectors. For now the debt collection continues unabated.

Millions of US workers have wages garnished from their paychecks for consumer debts every year, and those with low incomes are disproportionately affected.

Cavalli, the sole income earner of her household, has been trying to file for unemployment benefits, but as she has previously claimed them in the past 18 months, the online system won’t accept her application. She has not been able to get in touch with someone at the state unemployment office due to the recent flood of applications.

Because the courts in New York City have closed except for essential matters, Cavalli and her attorneys have yet to gain full access to the court files on the wage garnishment order. The vast majority of consumer debtors have no legal representation and often are not given notice they face a lawsuit.

Joseph Walker of Lawrence, Kansas, went to the emergency room last year on advice of his doctor after he experienced sudden chest pressure. Despite having health insurance through his employer, he left with a medical bill for a few thousand dollars and still owes about $2,800.

Last week, Walker, who drives a construction dump truck, had the last $200 in his bank account garnished by a debt collection agency for the bill. After the agency obtained a judgment against him to collect the debt, Walker tried to work out a monthly payment plan, but his wages have been garnished anyway.

“The garnishment came with no warning. You don’t know until your bank account is locked and your money is gone,” said Walker, who didn’t receive the order of garnishment in the mail until 24 March, after money was taken from his account, and he has already started to fall behind in paying bills.

“Unlike the rest of my bills that I can see, the debt collection agency doesn’t send you one. You can’t arrange to auto-pay and they don’t send anything showing what you paid. It’s like they are set up to make you fail. With the coronavirus they shouldn’t be allowed to harass and garnish bank accounts while Americans are in this crisis.”

“Garnishment is a really important issue, especially for low-income, economically vulnerable families, the exact workers being laid off in the US right now,” said J Michael Collins, faculty director of the Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

He noted it is still unclear if any federal stimulus checks will be subjected to wage garnishment, but warned courts can freeze bank accounts over debt, making these funds inaccessible if they are deposited.

In November 2018, Kathy Johnson of Appleton, Wisconsin, had a life-saving kidney surgery.

Uninsured at the time, Johnson was able to find a charity to cover the majority of the surgical expenses, but she still owes about $3,500 after the garnishing of her wages from her job at a Batteries Plus retail store started a few months ago. It has continued through the coronavirus pandemic, as her work schedule hasn’t been affected yet by the shutdowns caused by the pandemic.

“It’s $350 to $400 a month. I don’t deny I owe this money because they saved my life, but it is detrimental to my health now because I don’t have the money for what I need. I have no money for groceries – I’m only paying my rent and utilities, there’s no money left over,” Johnson said.

Kristinea Stillmunkes of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, received a notice last week that a debt collector won a judgment to start garnishing her wages for a car repossessed two years ago during a divorce, with added interest, and she has been out of work because the retail store she works at is closed. More than 25% of her last paycheck was taken.

“I’m completely devastated. I have been out of work for over a week and have no idea how I’m going to feed my family now,” she said. “I received no notice of this happening and was advised they don’t have to give notice.”

Among the Americans still experiencing wage garnishment through the coronavirus pandemic are those who have defaulted on their federal student loans. About 45 million Americans owe more than $1.7tn in student loan debt. According to an analysis by Student Loan Hero, between July 2015 to September 2018, 18 private student debt collection agencies contracted by the US Department of Education added $171bn to their debt inventory, and collected $2.3bn during the same period through wage garnishments.

Justin McKinnon, a digital communications professional in Dallas, is currently having 15% of his income garnished to pay off roughly $10,000 in student loans.

“The Department of Education has not decided to do anything, as far as I know, to ease the burden from the coronavirus,” said McKinnon. “They took my tax return also, in the middle of this epidemic. It’s heartless.”

Danelle Tavares of Denver receives $1,086 a month in social security disability benefits, and $16 a month for Snap food assistance benefits, but $250 is garnished from her benefits income each month by the Department of Education to pay off her student loan debt of $16,000.

A spokesperson for the US Department of Education said they are evaluating options for borrowers and will be sharing information in the coming days. In the meantime the Covid-19 pandemic is making life almost impossible for debt-ridden Americans.

“With this lockdown, food banks are overrun. I sometimes go two or three days without food,” Tavares said. “I haven’t been able to afford my medications this month. I know for most $250 isn’t much but for people like me it can make a huge difference.”

She noted the federal stimulus relief package for the coronavirus pandemic is supposed to increase social security income by $200, but that she will still be receiving less than she would before the garnishment. “Even though I paid for years and I’ve tried to utilize their system to take care of my student loans they still decided to garnish my already-below-poverty-line social security income,” Tavares added.

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