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Big banks offer to help federal workers on a “case-by-case basis”

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This week, the estimated 800,000 government employees affected by the partial government shutdown are about to start missing their paychecks, and lenders are stepping in with offers to help — some good, some bad, and none automatic.

Most of the biggest consumer banks are offering to waive fees and interest charges for some customers, but not all.

“It’s a case-by-case basis,” Bank of America spokesperson Lawrence Grayson said.

Consumers looking for help with mortgages are likely in a better position than those looking for help with credit cards. At Chase, for example, customers who alert the lender ahead of time on mortgage payments won’t incur a late fee. But for credit cards, it’s more complicated and based on what the company deems “fair.” For someone who pays off their credit card every month and never pays interest, Chase is likely to waive the interest payment once a customer pays the full amount (assuming that person calls them). But if someone makes monthly payments with interest every month, then that’s likely going to continue.

“It all depends on the customer, what kind of loan they have with us, and what their situation is,” a Chase spokesperson said in an email, emphasizing that clients need to call the company to find out their options.

The office that manages government personnel matters has advised workers to call their lenders or seek help from their “personal attorney” in negotiating payments.

“It’s very hit or miss and depends on the financial institution and also, probably, the financial situation of the employee,” Lauren Saunders, the associate director of the National Consumer Law Center, said. “I bet that employees who live paycheck [to paycheck] and need the help most probably have a harder time than the wealthier ones.”

The majority of American households do not have a rainy day fund to cover basics. According to the Federal Reserve Board, 40 percent of Americans can’t cover a $400 emergency expense. A missed paycheck can wreak havoc on a household’s finances.

The longer the shutdown goes on, the more likely workers will end up facing long-term consequences, experts say. One missed credit card or mortgage payment can ding their credit score. Withdrawals from investment or retirement accounts can come with steep penalties and mean less accrued interest. Many workers will end up with loans they’ll be required to pay back with interest, some of them at high rates.


Banks and credit card companies say they’re willing to help out — but not automatically

Most big lenders say they are willing to do something to help employees affected by the shutdown, but the situation is still far from ideal: Workers already stressed by the scenario now have to take time out to make calls and try to negotiate a deal for themselves, and they’re not all getting the same treatment.

Browse through the replies of the Twitter help accounts of institutions such as Wells Fargo and Bank of America and you’ll see responses to clients complaining about the shutdown telling them to reach out. Many banks have said they have options for workers affected by the shutdown, but the workers have to pick up the phone and call.

Chase put out a note to clients as soon as the shutdown was announced, saying it would waive or refund overdraft monthly service fees for employees who have direct deposits set up. It says that is automatic because it can see where direct deposits are coming from, though it would be best for workers to make sure.

Wells Fargo has set up a website for “customers who are experiencing hardship” because of the shutdown and will also automatically reverse monthly service and overdraft fees for those with direct deposits.

“For customers who are having difficulties making their loan payments, we also can work with them to identify short- or long-term assistance options that may be available to help them get through this difficult time,” Tom Goyda, a Wells Fargo spokesperson, said.

American Express says it will work with affected card members on potential options such as waiving late fees, return check fees, and future interest charges. Discover says workers may be able to skip payments or have interest charges reversed if they miss payments because of the shutdown. Citi says it may consider fee and interest adjustments and, with respect to mortgages, might offer short-term forbearance and repayment plans or loan modifications. Bank of America has set up a landing page and phone number for government employees to call.

The US Office of Personnel Management has put out suggestions for letters government employees can use with creditors to try to negotiate and has told them to consult their attorneys. Essentially, a lot of the message is that they’re on their own.

And federal workers, like many Americans, owe a lot of money: According to the real estate website Zillow, unpaid federal workers owe $438 million in mortgage and rent payments this month alone.


Credit unions are making a lot of offers

A number of credit unions are also making offers for workers, including short-term, low- or no-interest loans, and payment deferrals.

According to CNBC, Launch Federal Credit is offering a 0 percent interest rate for loans of as much as $3,000 to federal employees, and Navy Federal Credit Union is offering them for up to $6,000. The US Employees Credit Union is providing zero-interest loans for 60 days to its members, and Justice Federal Credit Union is offering low interest rate loans to Justice and Homeland Security department employees. Congressional Federal Credit Union is offering no-interest loans for 60 days.

Erin Hennessy, the chief innovation and marketing officer at United Federal Credit Union, told me the institution had put together packages for federal workers who are already members — and those who aren’t. “We put this program in place to support those who are not members, might be impacted by the federal shutdown, and want to come in and talk to us,” she said.

Credit unions, unlike banks, are not-for-profit organizations. For them, the shutdown appears to be a way to help existing members but also to attract new ones. Robert Powell, a personal finance expert and retirement columnist for the financial news publication TheStreet, told me for consumers, that might not be a bad idea. “What you’re trying to build with a credit union is a relationship where someone will know your name,” he said.


Consumers seem to be taking up some offers

Matt Duthler, the marketing director at Northland Area Federal Credit Union in Michigan, told me “quite a few” people have taken advantage of its offer of a $1,500 low-interest loan it put out in light of the shutdown, especially as the shutdown has extended. Jim Huff, the senior vice president of marketing at FirstLight Credit Union, which has extended a number of shutdown-related offers to members, said the same. “People are starting to get a little nervous, and so the number of calls we’re getting is increasing dramatically,” he said.

No-interest loans from credit unions and banks are nominally good, Scott Astrada, the director of federal advocacy at the Center for Responsible Lending, told me, but the scenario still isn’t great. “At the very best, it requires proactive time and knowledge of consumers,” he said. “And it’s completely discretionary, and that’s completely at the will of the financial institution. That’s not any type of stable backdrop for short-term expenses.”

And in some cases, affected workers will still lose out. At FirstLight, for example, one option being offered is for members is to withdraw funds early from a CD without incurring a fee. They can put them back in later, but for however long the funds are taken out, they’re losing interest that they otherwise would have received from the investment.


There are a lot of downsides for workers, in the best and worst of circumstances

Workers who find themselves in a tight spot financially because of the shutdown have a lot of options — they can take out temporary loans on thrift savings plans, IRAs, or even home equity, Powell, the personal finance expert, said. “I would put all these options into a spreadsheet and weigh the pros and cons of them and measure which one they use instead of randomly grasping at this one or that one,” he said.

Astrada, from the Center for Responsible Lending, expressed concern that some employees might turn to predatory payday lenders to make ends meet. “It’s not a bad thing when it’s a zero-interest, short-term loan, something along those lines,” he said, “but it’s the host of other predatory loan products that have already come to the forefront.”

A spokesperson for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — which is independently funded and therefore isn’t affected by the shutdown — said the bureau “is always on the lookout for reported problems or spikes in complaints, and may follow up as appropriate with supervisory work or an enforcement investigation.”

At the end of the day, it’s likely that some federal workers, even with options available, are going to miss a payment. That will affect their credit ratings, in the long term making them potentially less credit-worthy and resulting in a higher interest rate the next time they go to borrow. If that happens, they can write to credit rating agencies such as Experian, Equifax, or TransUnion to try to explain the situation, but again, that puts the impetus on the worker.

For employees whose jobs require security clearances, the situation could be even more dire, because high debt and financial issues can be considered a liability in the counterintelligence sense.

“High credit card balances can trigger a security review, even if you are paid up,” Dan Meyer, a partner at the law firm Tully Rinckey PLLC, said. “So as the shutdown moves into a second or third pay period, these employees will start tripping the continuous monitoring algorithms scanning employee credit reports. By June, we could see an uptick in reviews as these employees defend their financial considerations.”

Banks, credit unions, and other institutions may be offering some assistance, but it requires a lot of effort on the consumer’s end, and many are going to end up taking out — and paying back — loans they otherwise wouldn’t have needed.

President Trump on Sunday said he can relate to workers, but basically they need to make do. “I’m sure that the people that are on the receiving end will make adjustments; they always do,” he said. As time goes on, they’re going to have to adjust more and more.

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