You had to know there was no way we’d get through this pandemic without Betsy DeVos somehow making it worse. Once again, DeVos is dragging her gilded feet when it comes to following federal directives. And once again, she’s getting sued for it.
Not long ago, DeVos was fined $100,000 for violating a court order to cease collecting certain student loan payments. By “certain,” we mean those payments that correspond to fake for-profit colleges that scammed student borrowers. After a series of major lawsuits, the jig was up, the schools were closed, but somehow, Betsy just kept collecting. You’d think she might have learned a lesson — but alas, no.
Almost an entire term into the Donald Trump presidency, DeVos still appears to be confused about her legal obligations as Secretary of Education.
The Congressional CARES Act–the legislation adopted to provide emergency remedies to the financial fallout from the coronavirus–required automatic suspension of both principal and interest on federally-held student loans. Per the government website, explaining how it works:
From March 13 through September 30, 2020, the interest rate is set to 0% and payments are suspended for student loans owned by the federal government. Your federal student loan servicer will suspend all interest and payments without any action from you. You do not need to contact your student loan servicer.
Furthermore, those who made payments on student loans after March 13 could request a refund, and any payments borrowers chose to pay would be applied directly to principal.
That’s all great, and it was a pretty obvious way the federal government can make life easier on Americans who are currently struggling. In fact, it seemed almost impossible for DeVos to foul it up. But then, who among us could have predicted lockdown, Tiger King, or the president waxing inquisitive over pulmonary disinfectant injections? When it comes to DeVos, missteps appear to be a question of “when,” and not “if.”
According to a class-action lawsuit, the DOE continued to garnish wages of student loan borrowers during the pandemic, even after the CARES Act forbade it.
Elizabeth Barber and the National Student Legal Defense Network have filed a federal class-action lawsuit against DeVos and the DOE. Barber, as the lawsuit puts it, is “exactly who the CARES Act was designed to help.” She is a 59-year-old home health aide who earns $12.89 per hour caring for individuals with cerebral palsy. Like millions of Americans, Barber’s hours have been reduced during the coronavirus crisis because her work necessarily requires that she be in close physical contact with her clients.
The number of people similarly-situated – as well as the number of dollars at stake – is currently unclear. The complaint points to numbers released by the DOE for 2018, which indicated that over $840 million was garnished from borrowers with federal Direct Loans. Further, the complaint alleges, DOE estimates point to approximately 285,000 people having had their wages garnished between March 13 and March 26, 2020 – many of them in violation of the CARES Act.
The complaint also got out ahead of any “Sorry! My Bad! No harm done!” position the DOE might take, writing:
If the Department provides full refunds to borrowers months or even weeks into the future, many borrowers, including Ms. Barber, will still experience irreparable harm. Section 3513 of CARES Act is designed to provide immediate relief to struggling borrowers for life necessities such as food, rent, and bills. A refund many weeks or months after the garnishment takes place cannot erase hardship suffered in the present.
Right now, when coronavirus is the story, it would have been so simple for DeVos. Many of us are frustrated at our own powerlessness to help this massive crisis. DeVos might have even garnered some good (albeit, unfairly so) press for herself by taking some public-relations credit for helping the plight of student borrowers. Instead of taking credit for Congress’ compassionate forbearance on student loans, DeVos did her usual dance of defiance and delay. The inanity is truly astounding. Don’t worry, though. Betsy is determined to make sure that institutions come out stronger than before – even if individuals do not.
This Administration is committed to the success of #HBCUs, #MSIs and their students. Today, @usedgov announced $1.4B in #CARESAct funding support so students can continue learning and these institutions can emerge from this crisis stronger than before: https://t.co/EzOLEsgolX pic.twitter.com/ltWbl95BIl
— Secretary Betsy DeVos (@BetsyDeVosED) April 30, 2020
[image via Betsy Devos via Chris Kleponis-Pool and Getty Images]
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.