When Barber learned about a federal relief plan for defaulted borrowers, she believed the financial strain would ease. But every paycheck she has received, even as recently as last week, has been shorted.
“I need every dollar I earn at work to survive each day,” Barber said. “I don’t understand why the government keeps taking my money away after it passed a law that says they will stop.”
Barber is the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed late Thursday against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Education Department, accusing them of mismanaging a federal order halting involuntary collection for past-due student debt during the pandemic.
But the Student Borrower Protection Center, an advocacy group involved in the case, has received dozens of complaints from people who are still being shorted on their paychecks at a time when they can least afford it.
“Congress passed emergency legislation to ensure that these borrowers would keep their paychecks,” said Persis Yu, a staff attorney at National Consumer Law Center, which represents Barber and other borrowers alongside the National Student Legal Defense Network. “Sure, it’s administratively challenging, but the system has to work, and the bottom line is these borrowers need their money.”
The Education Department estimates about 285,000 people were subject to involuntary collection between March 13 and March 26. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, demands the department immediately suspend garnishment for Barber and all other affected borrowers.
The Education Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The allegations mirror accusations made previously by advocates and reported by The Washington Post. People familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said the department sent emails to employers instructing them to halt the garnishment. But most of the emails remained unopened, and the department failed to send formal letters, the people said. Barber said her employer has yet to receive word from the department.
Notifying an employer to stop withholding money from the borrower’s paycheck is a key step in ending involuntary collection. Because it can take employers a couple of weeks to fully process and cease collection, getting the notices out as fast as possible is essential.
The Education Department has said it has been trying to speed things up by first calling and emailing employers, who most likely are not physically in their offices to receive mail. Any money that is seized before an employer takes action is being refunded to borrowers, according to the department.
But Barber said she has yet to see a dime.
Several of her paychecks have been garnished since the passage of the stimulus last month, compounding an already precarious financial situation. There is a lien on Barber’s house. She has tried to stay on top of the $10,000 in student debt she amassed from attending Nazareth College a decade ago, but other bills have taken priority.
“I am so worried about how I will get through this,” Barber said. “I have no money in the bank.”