The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wilbur Ross says furloughed workers should take out a loan. His agency’s credit union is charging nearly 9%.

Trump officials have suggested furloughed federal workers are getting free vacation and questioned why they are going to homeless shelters for food. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

The Commerce Department’s federal credit union is charging furloughed employees almost 9 percent interest on emergency loans to cover their missing paychecks, despite Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross saying Thursday that financial institutions were offering “very, very low-interest-rate loans to bridge people over the gap.”

“During the Government Shutdown we’re here to help our members and non-member employees of the Department of Commerce & NOAA and its affiliates, the Executive Office of the President and the White House Management and Administration Offices,” the credit union’s website says.

Emergency loans of up to $5,000 are available for furloughed employees with repayment terms of up to two years, the site says. Two loan officers reached at the credit union’s telephone number confirmed the terms, which include interest rates “as low as 8.99 percent.”

Ross doesn’t understand why furloughed federal workers use food banks

In an interview with CNBC on Thursday, Ross made waves by saying he does not understand why federal workers are visiting food banks during the partial government shutdown. He urged them to seek loans from banks and credit unions to supplement their lost wages.

“I know they are, and I don’t really quite understand why,” Ross said when asked about federal workers going to food banks. Ross is a billionaire and a longtime friend of President Trump’s.

His comment drew criticism from Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “Is this the ‘let them eat cake’ kind of attitude?” she said. “Or call your father for money?”

Even Trump weighed in. “Perhaps he should have said it differently,” Trump said when asked about Ross’s comments. “He’s done a great job.”

President Trump on Jan. 24 downplayed earlier remarks by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross about furloughed government workers. (Video: The Washington Post)

Ross leads one of the agencies that is directly affected by the shutdown, which began Dec. 22, and more than 20,000 of his employees have not been paid for weeks.

A Commerce Department spokesperson said furloughed workers can access less expensive loans via other financial institutions. Navy Federal Credit Union, for example, offers no-interest 60-day loans of up to $6,000 for federal employees and contractors. U.S. Bank is offering similar terms for customers who are federal employees, charging 0.1 percent interest on amounts up to $6,000 with 12-month terms.

The Commerce credit union is helping employees in other ways. One furloughed customer said the credit union immediately granted him a two-month extension on a mortgage payment when he called to say he’d missed a paycheck and expected to miss a second.

Still, the White House is working to quell growing anger among the 800,000 federal workers who are scheduled to miss their second paychecks this week, as many have begun calling in sick or refusing to show up for work. The Trump administration has scrambled to try to deflect the shutdown’s effect on the economy, but it has done this in part by requiring thousands of unpaid federal employees to continue doing their jobs.

Many of those workers are beginning to revolt, calling in sick or saying they cannot afford gasoline.

“It’s kind of disappointing that the air traffic controllers are calling in sick in pretty large number,” Ross said in his television interview.

Ross repeatedly stressed that federal workers should simply take out loans to cover their expenses while the government is shut down. He acknowledged they would probably have to pay some interest, but he said it should help them cover costs.

“The idea that it’s paycheck or zero is not a really valid idea,” he said. “There’s no reason why some institution wouldn’t be willing to lend.”

He described such loans as “totally safe” for the lender. Since Congress has promised to pay employees for their time away from work, the loans effectively carry “a 100 percent government guarantee,” Ross said.

Several private financial institutions offer personal loans at annual percentage rates below the credit union figure. Lending Tree, an online lending exchange, quotes rates as low as 3.75 percent for short-term loans.

But longer-maturity emergency loans run to 35.99 percent, according to an online listing.

All of those rates are well above inflation, which is running at 1.9 percent, according to the Federal Reserve’s preferred gauge.

“The banks and credit unions should be making credit available to them,” Ross said on CNBC. “When you think about it, these are basically government-guaranteed loans because the government has committed these folks will get back pay once this whole thing gets settled down. So there really is not a good excuse why there should be a liquidity crisis.”