A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees in the US lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans
This story was co-published with NPR.
Back in 2009, Kevin Evans was one of millions of Americans blindsided by the recession. His 25-year career selling office furniture collapsed. He shed the nice home he could no longer afford, but not a $7,000 credit card debt.
After years of spotty employment, Evans, 58, thought he'd finally recovered last year when he found a better-paying, full-time customer service job in Springfield, Mo. But early this year, he opened his paycheck and found a quarter of it missing. His credit card lender, Capital One, had garnished his wages. Twice a month, whether he could afford it or not, 25 percent of his pay — the legal limit — would go to his debt, which had ballooned with interest and fees to over $15,000.
"It was a roundhouse from the right that just knocks you down and out," Evans said.
The recession and its aftermath have fueled an explosion of cases like Evans'. Creditors and collectors have pursued struggling cardholders and other debtors in court, securing judgments that allow them to seize a chunk of even meager earnings. The financial blow can be devastating — more than half of U.S. states allow creditors to take a quarter of after-tax wages. But despite the rise in garnishments, the number of Americans affected has remained unknown.
At the request of ProPublica, ADP, the nation's largest payroll services provider, undertook a study of 2013 payroll records for 13 million employees. ADP's report, released today, shows that more than one in 10 employees in the prime working ages of 35 to 44 had their wages garnished in 2013.
Roughly half of these debtors, unsurprisingly, owed child support. But a sizeable number had their earnings docked for consumer debts, such as credit cards, medical bills and student loans.
Extended to the entire population of U.S. employees, ADP's findings indicate that 4 million workers — about 3 percent of all employees — had wages taken for a consumer debt in 2013.
Carolyn Carter of the National Consumer Law Center called the level of wage garnishment identified by ADP "alarming." "States and the federal government should look on reforming our wage garnishment laws with some urgency," she said.
The increase in consumer debt seizures is "a big change," largely invisible to researchers because of the lack of data, said Michael Collins, faculty director of the Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The potential financial hardship imposed by these seizures and their sheer number should grab the attention of policymakers, he said. "It is something we should care about."
ADP's study, the first large-scale look at how many employees are having their wages garnished and why, reveals what has been a hidden burden for working-class families. Wage seizures were most common among middle-aged, blue-collar workers and lower-income employees. Nearly 5 percent of those earning between $25,000 and $40,000 per year had a portion of their wages diverted to pay down consumer debts in 2013, ADP found.
Perhaps due to the struggling economy in the region, the rate was highest in the Midwest. There, over 6 percent of employees earning between $25,000 and $40,000 — one in 16 — had wages seized over consumer debt. Employees in the Northeast had the lowest rate. The statistics were not broken down by race.
Currently, debtors' fates depend significantly on where they happen to live. State laws vary widely. Four states — Texas, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and South Carolina — largely prohibit wage garnishment stemming from consumer debt. Most states, however, allow creditors to seize a quarter of a debtor's wages — the highest rate permitted under federal law.
Evans had the misfortune to live in Missouri, which not only allows creditors to seize 25 percent, but also allows them to continue to charge a high interest rate even after a judgment.
By early 2010, Evans had fallen so far behind that Capital One suspended his card. For months, he made monthly $200 payments toward his $7,000 debt, according to statements reviewed by ProPublica and NPR. But by this time, the payments barely kept pace with the interest piling on at 26 percent. In 2011, when Evans could no longer keep up, Capital One filed suit. Evans was served a summons, but said he didn't understand that meant there'd be a hearing on his case.
If Evans had lived in neighboring Illinois, the interest rate on his debt would have dropped to under 10 percent after his creditor had won a judgment in court. But in Missouri, creditors can continue to add the contractual rate of interest for the life of the debt, so Evans' bill kept mounting. Missouri law also allowed Capital One to tack on a $1,200 attorney fee. Some other states cap such fees to no more than a few hundred dollars.
Evans has involuntarily paid over $6,000 this year on his old debt, an average of about $480 each paycheck, but he still owes more than $10,000. "It's my debt. I want to pay it," Evans said. But "I need to come up with large quantities of money so I don't just keep getting pummeled."
Companies can also seize funds from a borrower's bank account. There is no data on how frequently this happens, even though it is a common recourse for collectors.
The garnishment process for most debts begins in local courts. A company can file suit as soon as a few months after a debtor falls behind. A ProPublica review of court records in eight states shows the bulk of lawsuits are filed by just a few types of creditors and companies. Besides major lenders like Capital One, medical debt is a major source of such suits. High-cost lenders who deal in payday and installment loans also file suits by the thousands. And finally, an outsized portion comes from debt buyers — companies that purchase mostly unpaid credit card bills.
When these creditors and collectors go to court, they are almost always represented by an attorney. Defendants — usually in tough financial straits or unfamiliar with the court system — almost never are. In Clay County, Missouri, where Capital One brought its suit against Evans in 2011, only 7 percent of defendants in debt collection cases have their own attorneys, according to ProPublica's review of state court data. Often the debtors don't show up to court at all: The most common outcome of a debt collection lawsuit in Missouri (and any other state) is a judgment by default.
In a Clay County courtroom recently, the court was filled with creditors, but debtors were in short supply. Attorneys for hospitals, debt buyers, and lenders milled about, approaching the podium when their cases were called. Often they simply asked for default judgments when debtors failed to show.
Christopher McGraugh, an associate circuit court judge in St. Louis, said the system is designed to give debtors a chance to dispute allegations in suits against them. But in debt collection cases, "it just doesn't happen that much."
Some debtors, he said, may believe that they had no reason to attend since they owe the debt. For others, unable to afford an attorney, handling the case on their own is "beyond their sophistication," he said. As a result, the facts of most cases are never questioned, leaving the plaintiff with a judgment and the ability to pursue a garnishment.
McGraugh, who has presided over thousands of debt collection cases, said when defendants do obtain lawyers, particularly in cases involving debt buyers, they can point to possible holes in the suit. Those cases, he said "are rarely pursued."
Millions of debt collection lawsuits are filed every year in local courts. In 2011, for instance, the year Capital One went to court against Evans, more than 100,000 such suits were filed in Missouri alone.
Despite these numbers, creditors and debt collectors say they only pursue lawsuits and garnishments against consumers after other collection attempts fail. "Litigation is a very high-cost mechanism for trying to collect a debt," said Rob Foehl, general counsel at the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals. "It's really only a small percentage of outstanding debts that go through the process."
"Legal action is a last resort," said Capital One spokeswoman Pam Girardo, and the bank only filed suit after Evans "didn't complete the payment plan we agreed to."
Experts in garnishment say they've seen a clear shift in the type of debts that are pursued. A decade ago, child support accounted for the overwhelming majority of pay seizures, said Amy Bryant, a consultant who advises employers on payroll issues and has written a book on garnishment laws. "The emphasis is now on creditor garnishments," she said. Today, only about half the seizures are for child support, she said.
To illustrate the rise overall, Bryant provided ProPublica and NPR payroll statistics from a major retailer with approximately 250,000 employees nationwide. The company allowed the data to be used on the condition its name was not used. Since 2007, the number of employees who had their pay seized for consumer debt roughly doubled. As of June of this year, 2 percent — about 5,000 employees — had ongoing garnishments for consumer debt and just under 1 percent for student loan debt.
ADP's analysis also found that the rate of garnishment for child support was most common (3.4 percent), but closely followed by consumer debt, including student loans. The next most common reasons for garnishments were tax levies and payments for bankruptcy plans. (Disclosure: ProPublica retains ADP to provide it with professional employer organization services.)
Wage seizures for student loan debts are governed by different laws than other consumer debts. Collectors can obtain a garnishment after an administrative procedure set by federal rules. Borrowers must also be more than nine months behind before a collector can seek one. Finally, such seizures are capped at 15 percent of disposable income.
Department of Education data shows that approximately $1 billion has been collected each year over the past several years through these garnishments. The amount is up by about 40 percent since 2006, even after the figures are adjusted for inflation. ADP's analysis did not break out student loans from other types of consumer debt.
Bryant said the rise in garnishments has become an unanticipated burden for employers.
"It becomes very complicated," she said, particularly for national employers who must navigate the differences in state laws. "It's very easy to make a mistake in the process." If an employer does not correctly handle a garnishment order, she said, they can become liable for a portion or even the entirety of the debt in some states.
The burden was enough to prompt the American Payroll Association to request in 2011 that the Uniform Law Commission draft a model state law on wage garnishment. Bryant said employers are hoping that the new law, which is still being drafted, will be adopted by a large number of states and reduce complications.
What's it like for a family trying to live on wages reduced by old debts? Tomorrow ProPublica and NPR will examine how much creditors and debt collectors are allowed to take from debtors' wages and bank accounts, and how it impacts their lives.
Probably for the first time, top Bollywood actors and celebrities took a public stand against a 'powerful' newspaper's crass and titillating coverage of Deepika Padukone, when the star decided to hit back at the media group on Twitter
Film actor Deepika Padukone on Monday received tremendous support for taking on the 'mighty' Times of India on social media to protest its crass attempt to gain readership at her cost.
The newspaper published a photo of Deepika captioned 'OMG: Deepika Padukone's cleavage show,' which outraged the actor. While slamming the photo and related story, she tweeted...
YES!I am a Woman.I have breasts AND a cleavage! You got a problem!!??
- Finding Fanny (@deepikapadukone) September 14, 2014
Dont talk about Woman's Empowerment when YOU don't know how to RESPECT Women!
- Finding Fanny (@deepikapadukone) September 14, 2014
Deepika's tweets went viral on twitter and also got her an avalanche of support from ordinary people. But what was most heartening is that a wide swathe of film stars and celebrities, for whom the powerful media house and its publicity machine is a necessity, also came out in the open to support Deepika and express anger at Times of India's humiliating attempt at titillation.
Homi Adajania, director of Deepika-starrer, Finding Fanny and her co-stars Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh and others had this to say:
@deepikapadukone way to let 'em know! [email protected] TUM se yeh ummeed nahi thi #SMH#owned
- Ranveer Singh (@RanveerOfficial) September 14, 2014
@deepikapadukone - we just slam ourselves back into the dark ages! Reputed channels inciting regressive shit. What are they thinking?! Sad!
- homiadajania (@homiadajania) September 14, 2014
We have hit a new low today...forget complimenting a woman have the ability to respect a woman first...
- Arjun Kapoor (@arjunk26) September 14, 2014
Thank you for this! About time! #RESPECT "@deepikapadukone: YES!I am a Woman.I have breasts AND a cleavage! You got a problem!!??"
-Aditi Rao Hydari @aditiraohydari
firmly with @deepikapadukone on this.
-Harsha Bhogle @bhogleharsha
Just reading TOI Ent's coverage of @deepikapadukone Stunned. A new low. Well done, Deepika, for not letting it go. Neither shall we.
-Rahul Bose @rahulbose1
I hear a head rolling RT @TOIEntertain: @deepikapadukone , It's a compliment! U look so great that we want to make sure everyone knew! :)
-atul kasbekar @atulkasbekar
An actor has just as much right to react to an image of their body as anyone does. Fame doesn't veto your gender or your self-respect.
-Virr Das @theVirDas
Entertainment 'news' has rarely ever treated women with much respect. I'm surprised by the surprise. For once some1 decided not to let it go
-Dia Mirza @deespeak
SHAME ON TOI !! Someone tell these so called reporters that in a top angle shot, their mothers & sisters would look the same !
-Sandiip Sikcand @SandiipSikcand
Brave reply of @deepikapadukone to Times of India when they posted a bullshit post. We're proud of you Deepika.
-Sir Ravindra Jadeja @SirJadeja
#facepalm RT @TOIEntertain: @deepikapadukone , It's a compliment! You look so great that we want to make sure everyone knew! :)"
-All India Bakchod @allIndiabakchod
Dear yellow journalism, a star showed you that some of you are green. . Dear yellow journalism, yeh-lo!
-Ayushmann Khurrana @ayushmannk
100% with deepika on a pathetic excuse for journalism that is @timesofindia. Way to go!" Toilet paper!
-gaurav kapur @gauravkapur
Leading daily under fire for crude headline about top actress on social networking site (Insert coins to reveal names) #newspaypers
-gaurav kapur @gauravkapur
The tough new stand of celebrities is a welcome development. But some are saying that this bold new stand should not stop with angry tweets. When media houses make it clear that people can buy all the editorial publicity they need at a price, then its attempt to attract viewers though demeaning and objectionable videos ought to be treated a lot more seriously.
Nifty has a started a short downward journey. Intraday rallies will be met with selling
We had mentioned in Friday’s closing report that the NSE's CNX Nifty is trapped in a trading zone and we may see the index making an effort to gain. On Monday the index opened lower, tried to rally but finished at the lower end of the range. We expect the indices to move further down.
S&P BSE Sensex opened lower at 26,998 which was also the day’s high, while teh 50-share Nifty opened at 8,070 and hit a high almost at the same level. Both the indices hit a 10-day low (including today) at 26,791 and 8,030. Sensex closed at 26,817 (down 244 points or 0.90%), while Nifty closed at 8,042 (down 64 points or 0.78%). This is the highest one-day percentage loss since 8 August 2014. NSE recorded a volume of 104.84 crore shares. India VIX rose 7.20% to close at 13.2550.
Among the other indices on the NSE, the top five gainers were Media (1.36%), Pharma (0.72%), Smallcap (0.57%), PSU Bank (0.51%) and Midcap (0.24%) while the top five losers were Metal (1.60%), Commodities (1.24%), Energy (0.95%), IT (0.82%) and CPSE (0.80%).
Of the 50 stocks on the Nifty, 11 ended in the green. The top five gainers were Lupin (4.34%), United Spirits (2.69%), Cipla (2.33%), PNB (1.31%) and Hero MotoCorp (1.18%) while the five losers were Jindal Steel (4.98%), Hindalco (3.20%), Ambuja Cements (2.09%), Kotak Mahindra Bank (2.08%) and Ultratech Cement (2.06%).
Of the 1,630 companies on the NSE, 851 companies closed in the green, 731 companies closed in the red while 48 companies closed flat.
On Friday, after market hours, the data released by the government showed the index of industrial production growth moderating to 0.5% in July 2014, from revised 3.9% rise recorded in June 2014, while the annual rate of inflation based on the combined consumer price indices for urban and rural India eased to 7.8% in August 2014, from 7.96% July 2014. Today, the market awaited the release of the inflation data based on the wholesale price index (WPI) for August 2014. The annual rate of inflation based on the monthly WPI decelerated to 3.74% in August 2014, from 5.19% in July 2014. The deceleration in inflation based on the wholesale price index (WPI) was sharper than market expectations.
Advance tax payment by India Inc today, 15 September 2014 will provide clues about Q2 September 2014 corporate earnings. Major banks like State Bank and Bank of India have reported higher tax payments.
Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor Raghuram Rajan said at a banking conference that inflation was still high and there was no point in cutting interest rates to see inflation pick up again. The RBI wants to bring down interest rates when it is "feasible", Rajan said.
He also said that there was a need to change the management appointment process in public sector banks to make it more transparent and that the central bank is in talks with the government to improve governance in public sector banks.
Future Retail (6.93%) was among the top two gainers in ‘A’ group on the BSE. There are reports that the Union government might allow foreign portfolio investors’ to hold even majority stake in retail companies.
Yes Bank (4.99%) was the top loser in ‘A’ group on the BSE. The stock witnessed correction today after hitting 52-week high on Friday. According to the reports, foreign investors will need the Reserve Bank's approval to buy equity in the bank as it has reached the limit allowed for overseas shareholding.
Cipla (2.80%) was the top gainer in the Sensex 30 pack. The stock today again hit its all-time high. There are reports that US-based drug maker Gilead Sciences may join hands with at least five Indian generic pharmaceutical companies for manufacturing and selling cheaper versions of its new hepatitis C medicines. Among others, Cipla is likely to sign the deal with Gilead Sciences.
Weak data from China raised concern. China is the world's largest consumer of steel, copper and aluminium. Hindalco (3.08%), Tata Steel (2.06%) and Sesa Sterlite (1.86%) were among the top three losers in the Sensex 30 stock.
US indices closed Friday in the negative. In the quarterly report released on Sunday, the Bank for International Settlements has reportedly warned that international borrowing and low volatility are increasing the risk for emerging-market assets. International borrowing by companies in some emerging markets now matches the output of their economies, leaving bondholders more vulnerable to interest rate or currency shocks, the BIS has said, according to reports. The BIS, known as the central bankers' bank, hosts the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision which sets global capital standards.
Except for Shanghai Composite (0.31%) and Jakarta Composite (0.02%) all the other trading Asian indices today closed in the negative. Straits Times (0.99%) was the top loser.
Factory production in China rose 6.9% in August from a year earlier, the statistics office reported on 13 September 2014, down from 9% in July. It was the slowest pace outside the Lunar New Year holiday period of January and February since December 2008. Growth in fixed-asset investment slowed to 16.5% in August, while retail sales expanded 11.9% in August, easing from 12.2% in July.
European indices are showing mixed trends, while US Futures were trading marginally lower.