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'A New Low': Betsy DeVos Sued for Garnishing Wages of Nearly 300,000 Student Loan Borrowers During Pandemic

"The Trump administration is taking money from borrowers who are living on the edge of poverty, in the middle of a pandemic, and in violation of the law."

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House in Washington, D.C. on August 16, 2018. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

A home health aide who earns just under $13 per hour is the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed Thursday against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose department has continued garnishing the wages of hundreds of thousands of student loan borrowers in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The CARES Act, which was signed into law in late March, prohibits the Education Department from seizing the wages and tax refunds of student loan borrowers who have defaulted on their loans. 

But Elizabeth Barber of Rochester, New York, says the Trump administration has nonetheless continued to take 12% of her paychecks since the legislation passed—garnishing $70 from her check as recently as last week—adding to the financial strain which forced her to default on $10,000 in federal loans in December. Barber's hours have also been reduced by 10 to 15 hours per week since the coronavirus pandemic began.

"I am so worried about how I will get through this," Barber said in a statement. "I have no money in the bank. I need every dollar I earn at work to survive each day, but my hours have been cut because of the virus. I don't understand why the government keeps taking my money away after it passed a law that says they will stop."

The lawsuit was filed late Thursday, with legal advocacy group Student Defense and the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) representing Barber and about 285,000 other Americans whose wages have been garnished in the past six weeks. 

The CARES Act gave relief to borrowers from wage garnishment until Sept. 30. But across the country, employers including Barber's have not yet been formally advised by the Trump administration to stop withholding as much as 15% of employees' paychecks and sending the garnished wages to the government.

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The Education Department claims the borrowers will be refunded the garnished wages if they were collected after March 13, but has offered no information about when they will see those refunds.

The lawsuit "captures a new low" in DeVos's leadership, tweeted Student Defense on Friday.

"Right now, low-wage workers hit hardest by the economic impact of the pandemic need their paychecks to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads," said Persis Yu, director of the NCLC's Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project. "By continuing to use its harsh collection tools during this public health and economic crisis, the Department of Education is placing the health, safety, and well-being of vulnerable student loan borrowers in peril."

In a letter to DeVos sent on April 16, Democratic lawmakers including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) demanded information about the wage garnishment which has persisted despite being illegal under the CARES Act and called the secretary's failure to stop the practice "unconscionable."

"The Trump administration is taking money from borrowers who are living on the edge of poverty, in the middle of a pandemic, and in violation of the law," said Seth Frotman, executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center, which is supporting the lawsuit. "This lawsuit shines light on how she has been operating a student debt collection machine that is accountable to no one—and it must be stopped."

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