Now with barely 25 hours of work a week and bills piling up, Barber, 60, worries the federal government will resume withholding 12 percent of her paycheck for a past-due student loan.
“I’m stressed out,” Barber said. “My work has changed dramatically in just the last two months. I’ve lost several cases. I’m still struggling. I can’t afford to lose more money.”
A wide variety of pandemic relief programs is set to expire Dec. 31, including measures that froze student loan payments and the collection of defaulted education debt by the federal government. Millions of Americans will be thrown back into repayment. Hundreds of thousands of student loan borrowers, including Barber, stand to have their wages garnished just as a resurgence of the coronavirus threatens to create further economic disruptions.
President Trump has not committed to extending the relief programs through executive order, and a White House spokesman declined to comment on the matter. And congressional Democrats’ attempt to extend the moratoriums through next Sept. 30 are on hold with the latest stimulus bill stalled in the Senate.
President-elect Joe Biden could act when he takes office in late January. But turning off an antiquated collections system — one that never fully ceased operating under the moratorium — could take months and ensnare some of the most vulnerable borrowers.
“There will be at minimum a three-week period of complete uncertainty because this is not a system that was built to turn on and turn off,” said Alex Elson, an attorney at the nonprofit National Student Legal Defense Network.
Barber can attest to the bureaucracy of involuntary federal collections. Despite the Trump administration imposing the moratorium in late March, the government continued to short her paychecks until May. That month, she became the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit that accused Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Education Department of mismanaging the federal order and demanded a full suspension.
Legal-aid and consumer groups received dozens of complaints from people like Barber who were still having their pay garnished weeks after the order took effect.
The Education Department has said the matter is largely out of its hands because of the way the collection apparatus functions. Although the federal agency instructs employers to cease garnishment, companies must take action to end it. The department said it has called and emailed employers to stop withholding wages on its behalf, but some have continued.
It can take employers weeks to fully process and cease collection, making it critical to get the notices out as fast as possible. But some say the Education Department failed to promptly mail notices to companies. People familiar with the matter, who were not authorized to speak publicly, previously told The Washington Post that most of the emails the department sent remained unopened. And they questioned why the agency failed to deploy all methods of communication from the outset.
Because employers can be held liable for failure to adhere to a wage garnishment order, they are reluctant to act without explicit direction from the Education Department.
Court-ordered reports depict an unwieldy system for recouping past-due debt that the federal government could slow but never turn off. Of the 390,000 people who were subject to involuntary collection as of March 13 — when Trump declared a national emergency — 15 were still having money withheld from their paychecks as of Nov. 12, according to court documents.
In an attempt to shut down the collection system, the Education Department at the end of October closed the post office box where employers are sending payments. Now any payment sent to that mailbox will be returned to the sender.
If an employer continues to garnish a borrower’s wages, the Education Department will refund the money it receives. The department said it had returned $186 million to more than 380,000 borrowers through early November.
There are still nearly 24,000 people waiting for refunds because the department does not have valid addresses on file. The agency said it has emailed borrowers asking them to update their information and is working with the Treasury Department to validate mailing addresses through a data match.
The administrative gymnastics involved in stopping wage garnishment is not only an indication of a deeply flawed system but a troubling reminder of what’s ahead for the Biden administration, consumer advocates say.
“I’m very concerned about a switch being flipped on January 1st. Even if it’s turned off weeks later … are we going to see this whole host of problems all over again?” said Persis Yu, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, which represents Barber and other borrowers alongside the National Student Legal Defense Network.
Because it takes weeks for employers to make the necessary changes in their payroll processes to begin or end wage garnishment, the Education Department says it is unlikely that people will have their pay withheld right away. Still, the federal agency concedes that some employers could begin immediately after the moratorium is lifted.
“That’s leaving completely up to chance what’s going to happen to hundreds of thousands of people,” Elson said. “It’s placing them in a very precarious situation. They’re not going to know what’s going to happen.”
In the meantime, Barber waits and hopes that January 2021 will not be a repeat of January 2020. That’s when the federal government began garnishing her pay to recoup $10,000 in student debt Barber amassed while attending Nazareth College a decade ago.
Barber had tried to pay down the balance but fell behind as she struggled to keep a roof over her head. There is a lien on her home. She has no savings and is past due on her utilities. The refund Barber received from the Education Department in June helped her catch up on some bills, but she still cannot afford to pay in full each month on her smaller salary.
Job interviews have led nowhere. And old clients remain reluctant to welcome a home health aide back into closed quarters.
“I’m frustrated … and I don’t know what to do at this point,” Barber said.