54,000 still getting pay held over student debt, filing says

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room, Friday, March 27, 2020, in Washington, as Vice President Mike Pence listens. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room, Friday, March 27, 2020, in Washington, as Vice President Mike Pence listens. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

A Monday court filing from the U.S. Education Department says the agency was still garnishing wages from more than 50,000 workers who had fallen behind on their student loans more than a month after Congress ordered an immediate suspension of the practice during the coronavirus pandemic.

The finding, which included the number of garnishments as of last week, was part of a court-ordered update jointly filed by the Education Department and by a home health aide leading a class action lawsuit against the agency. The aide, Elizabeth Barber, says the department has illegally docked her pay multiple times since Congress approved a March 27 rescue package ordering a pause on involuntary collections.

In the filing, the department says it's “continuing to endeavor to halt all wage garnishments.” It says that, as of May 7, about 54,000 workers were being subject to wage garnishment. On March 13, that figure was approximately 390,000, according to the filing.

The Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It previously said it was contacting employers by phone, email and letters instructing them to stop docking pay.

Barber filed the suit with support from consumer and student advocacy groups, including Student Defense, a Washington nonprofit. The group said Monday's filing proves that borrowers are having their wages illegally seized six weeks after Congress' package took effect.

“For borrowers already worried about affording rent, groceries, and medication, losing part of each paycheck to an unlawful garnishment is enough to push them into truly dire circumstances,” said Alex Elson, senior counsel at Student Defense.

The filing says the department will issue periodic reports on the issue while the case continues.

The lawsuit, filed April 30 in federal court, alleged that thousands of workers were getting up to 15% of their paychecks held back because the Education Department had failed to notify employers that they must stop withholding pay.