Columnist

Financial institutions are treating the partial government shutdown like a natural disaster, providing affected customers with everything from no-interest loans to fee waivers.

Some institutions are even proactively reaching out to customers they believe are feeling a financial pinch from the shutdown.

Bank of America said it has emailed every customer — close to 260,000 — who receives federal payroll funds direct-deposited in their account. The bank is encouraging people to call its “Client Assistance Program” at 844-219-0690. For personalized assistance, the bank suggests that customers schedule an appointment to meet with a specialist at a local branch.

But what if your bank isn’t contacting you directly?

Then you make the call — something people often don’t do until things are pretty bad.

In my experience, many folks tell themselves there’s no point in contacting their lenders when they’re in financial trouble. They reason that they won’t get meaningful assistance, so why bother? However, these are extraordinary times, much like when a hurricane hits. Call anyway, because staying silent will for sure not get you the help you need.

In fact, there is even pressure on financial institutions to help those who are suffering from this shutdown mess through no fault of their own.

Federal and state regulators — including the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the National Credit Union Administration — issued a joint statement encouraging the institutions they oversee to work with consumers impacted by the federal shutdown.

“Affected borrowers may face a temporary hardship in making payments on debts such as mortgages, student loans, car loans, business loans or credit cards,” the statement said. “As they have in prior shutdowns, the agencies encourage financial institutions to consider prudent efforts to modify terms on existing loans or extend new credit to help affected borrowers.”

Chase is telling customers whose income has been bottlenecked by the shutdown to call to discuss its hardship programs. Chase has a special-care line at 1-888-356-0023.

“We are proactively waiving overdraft fees and monthly account fees for our deposit accounts (checking, savings) where we know you’re a federal government worker,” Trish Wexler, Chase’s chief communications officer, said in an email. “We started doing this in mid-December, right after the shutdown began. The way we’re determining who’s a federal worker is to look for direct deposits into the account (as of November 2018) from a federal government paycheck.”

Wexler said impacted customers who have a paycheck that is deposited at another institution can still qualify for the fee breaks if they call the bank’s special-care line. Chase will turn off these fees for you and refund any fees you’ve already been charged, she said.

“The support we’re offering mirrors what we do for victims of hurricanes, wildfires and other situations that put our customers in need of some relief and leeway from us,” she said.

The bank is asking customers with a loan who are impacted by the shutdown to also call the hotline.

“Since we don’t know who these particular customers are, they would need to call us to get this kind of assistance,” she added.

Wexler said the phone lines are “staffed by people focused just on this, who can help our customers avoid harm that might come from missing their paycheck.”

As an example, if you have a mortgage with Chase, specialists working the lines are empowered to do things such as let you miss your mortgage payment until you get paid. They can also waive or refund any late fees and suppress reporting to the credit bureaus.

Other banks and credit unions nationwide have made similar promises of assistance. New Jersey-based Provident Bank is offering up to two refunds on late-payment fees for mortgage and home equity loans. Affected employees may also be eligible for up to three refunds on checking account overdraft fees and up to two refunds on credit card late-payment fees.

The Bank of Hawaii is offering financial assistance programs for federal or contract employees that include a personal loan of up to $5,000 at a fixed interest of 3 percent. The loan term is 27 months, with no payments due during the first three months. The bank also has a loan forbearance program, in which affected workers may defer payments for up to three months for residential mortgages, home equity loans and home equity lines in amortization. Customers may also be able to extend personal or auto loans for up to three months.

Don’t wait for the shutdown to create a financial meltdown for you. Even if you’re okay for now, make the call to your bank or credit union so that you’ll know what options are available should you run out of savings.