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Predatory loans offer tempting stopgap for federal workers missing second paycheck

Short-term, small-dollar loans are often high interest and predatory in nature — and attractive to the many Americans who face dire financial circumstances.
Furloughed federal workers and those aligned with them protest the partial government shutdown in the Hart Senate Office Building
Furloughed federal workers and those aligned with them protest the partial government shutdown in the Hart Senate Office Building Jan. 23, 2019.Win McNamee / Getty Images

The repo man appears to be closing in on Karrie Wright and her co-workers at a hospital for federal prisoners in Missouri. That's because, for the second time on Friday, the 35th day of the partial government shutdown, their paychecks will show an amount of $0.

For a fourth week, Wright, a nurse at the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, and her colleagues have been left to fend off an onslaught of creditors and bill collectors, creating a fresh harvest time for money-lenders.

More than 3,000 federal employees work in this small Midwestern city, according to the local chamber of commerce. While many struggle to make ends meet during the shutdown, some have turned to small-dollar loans to fill the financial vacuum that comes as a result of the ongoing battle raging more than 1,000 miles away in Washington.

“Staff are going to the food bank here in Springfield,” said Wright, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1612. “They’re calling their mortgage companies, they’re calling their electric companies and phone companies to see what they can do. We’ve had repo trucks try to come into the parking lots where we work. That’s what’s happening to my coworkers.”

As Wright and her colleagues struggle — many of them continuing to work despite not being paid — small-dollar and payday loan companies have seen a surge in their stock prices since the government shutdown began on December 22.

They may have gotten a further boost on Thursday when Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross in an interview with CNBC pointed to loans as a way for federal workers to survive while Washington is at an impasse.

“Banks and credit unions should be making credit available to them,” Ross said. “Now true, the people might have to pay a little bit of interest, but the idea that it's paycheck or zero is not a really valid idea.”

That recommendation, which he walked back after drawing criticism, leaves some experts more than worried. Short-term, small-dollar loans are often high interest and predatory in nature — and extremely attractive to the many Americans who are facing dire financial circumstances.

Because of a lack of regulations surrounding loans and the Trump administration rescinding some Obama-era protections, the annual percentage rate for payday loans in Missouri are more than 400 percent on average, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Prior to the shutdown, a 2018 Federal Reserve report found that 40 percent of Americans could not afford an unexpected expense of $400. Without an agreement between Congress and the White House, those loans could become more appealing as the shutdown continues to delay payments to federal workers.

“Low income borrowers are very vulnerable to payday loans,” said Deborah Goldstein, the executive vice president of the Center for Responsible Lending. “They may think they don’t have other options and the payday lenders make it sound like a cheap loan and low barrier to entry when it is very expensive. Their business model is based on people having to take out more loans because of the high expense.”

World Acceptance Corp provides loans between $300 and $4,000, and EZCorp, Inc. runs hundreds of pawn shops and payday lenders across the country. As of Thursday, they have each seen their stock rise nearly 19 percent since the government shutdown began.

World Acceptance said that they had seen an uptick in customers requesting deferred payments and using their services to get a loan against their future tax refunds since the shutdown began. “The company is not yet seeing an increase in affected individuals seeking loans,” the company added in a statement.

Chad Prashad, the company’s president and CEO, said they are offering payment deferrals for existing customers and up to $1,250 in loans for zero percent interest and no fees for 10 months.

EZCorp, Inc. said it had entered a "quiet period" and declined to comment.

NBC News also contacted six local payday lenders in Springfield, Missouri, to see whether they had noticed an increase in business since the shutdown began, but all declined to comment.

There are some alternatives to payday and small-dollar loans for federal workers, however, as community organizations, credit unions and some banks are offering government employees zero interest loans as the shutdown drags on.

In Springfield, the Community Foundation of the Ozarks and Multipli Credit Union are working together to provide federal workers no-interest loans of up to $1,500 with repayment based on the receipt of the employee’s paycheck after the shutdown ends.

Judy Hadsall, the president and CEO of the credit union, said they have only seen a trickle of people so far — about five a day — since they first made the funds available last week, but they are expecting that rate to pick up after Friday.

“I hope they come to us first,” Hadsall said about federal employees. “We put this together pretty quick, turned it around in less than a week. We’re a big part of this community and wanted to help out in anyway that we could.”

In that spirit, Rep. T.J. Cox, a freshman Democratic congressman from California, introduced a bill last week that would force the U.S. Treasury to provide $6,000 no-interest loans to federal employees during the government shutdown. The bill has 86 co-sponsors and is in committee at the moment.

The congressman called the current situation “completely irresponsible” and hoped his bill would mean that employees wouldn’t resort to payday lenders to “bear the burden of the federal government.”

“They were put in this position, and not because they weren’t doing their jobs,” Cox told NBC News. “They were put in this position because of the distraction of this administration trying to make a political point.”

But it’s the rural areas across the country where people are employed by the federal government, like those that surround Springfield, that have some experts particularly concerned. With few resources available to them, payday lenders may seem like the only avenue for rural workers.

Jim King, the CEO and president of Fahe, a financial advocacy organization serving Appalachia, said that it seems like every small Kentucky town with a two-lane road and a strip mall has some type of payday lender.

“Some of them are a little better than others but generally speaking the whole business model is built on people being short on cash,” he said.

Though many may get their pay eventually, this will have a long term ripple effect on communities across the country, King said.

“What it looks like on the surface is that the government is shutdown and these people will get back pay, but that’s not the case if you had to go out and borrow money and pay a premium for it," he said. “You’re worse off than you were, and every community in this country is going to have its own saga of woe that it went through when this is over.”