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Borrowers sue Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for garnishing wages after Congress ordered halt

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is being sued by student loan borrowers for failing to stop garnishing their wages despite a federal order. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Since January, when the Education Department began withholding 12 percent of her paycheck for a past-due student loan, Elizabeth Barber, 59, has teetered on the edge of poverty.

The $12.89 an hour that Barber earns as a home health aide in Penfield, N.Y., was barely enough to cover her utilities and mortgage before her wages were garnished. With every dollar lost, Barber has fallen further behind, especially as her hours have been reduced amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

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.

The Trump administration last month imposed a 60-day moratorium on the collection of defaulted student loans by the federal government, which Congress codified in the stimulus package and extended through Sept. 30.

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.

Worried about your student loans? Here’s what the government is, and is not, doing to help.

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.

As Americans faced layoffs and lost wages, student loan companies kept going to court to collect

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.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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