Who Can Garnish Your Wages?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

The economic crisis may be a distant memory for many, but for others, the shadows of the downturn still linger in the form of reduced paychecks every month, as more and more lenders utilize wage garnishment as a tool to regain their investments.

Wage garnishment, for the uninitiated, is a legal process in which “an employer is required to withhold the earnings of an individual for the payment of a debt in accordance with a court order or other legal or equitable procedure.” In a recent study conducted by ADP, more than 4 million working Americans, or about 3% of American workers, had their wages garnished to pay off a consumer debt last year. And the penalty, which was once primarily used to insure that child support and alimony payments were made, has become increasingly popular among creditors for more common types of debt, such as consumer debt, or even student loans and hospital bills.

The renewed popularity of wage garnishment as a tactic by creditors has led some to claim that the practice is beginning to get out of hand. Carolyn Carter, a representative for the National Consumer Law Center, who spoke with NPR and ProPublica, called the state of wage garnishment in America “alarming.” She says that “states and federal government should look on reforming our wage garnishment laws with some urgency.”

ADP found that in certain states, “pay seizures appear to be rising fast.” The research institute, which specializes in employment, workforce trends, and human capital management, speculates that “the economic downturn has produced a significant increase in the number of debtors — and creditors seem to be suing at higher levels.” ADP adds that “between 2012 and 2013, there was virtually no change in the garnishment landscape,” which is possibly the result of the “continued economic recovery.”

ADP found that the Midwest has the highest rate of wage garnishment in the country, likely due to the fact that Midwest has “more manufacturing companies than the Northeast and West,” which had the two lowest rates of wage garnishment. The manufacturing industry, ADP found, has the highest rate of wage garnishment, and the Midwest’s high concentration of manufacturing companies, paired with the fact that the region has been slower to recover from the economic crisis than other parts of the country, are two likely factors in the Midwest’s higher rate of pay seizures.

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

A docked paycheck is hard on anyone, but perhaps more disturbing is the fact that ADP’s findings indicate that wage garnishment generally hits hardest among lower-middle class and middle class Americans, as if they weren’t suffering enough as it is. According to the institute’s report, the income bracket most likely to experience wage garnishment is between $25,000 and $40,000. The rate of garnishment is also highest amongst middle-aged Americans in their prime working years; an astounding one in 10 Americans between the ages of 35 and 44 had their wages garnished last year, according to ProPublica.

Wage garnishment has hit hard for many Americans who are still trying to pay off debts acquired during the recession. Kevin Evans, a former office furniture salesman, lost his job and his home in 2009, and quickly racked up $7,000 in credit card debt as he struggled to get back on his feet. Five years later, in 2013, after Evans finally landed a secure, full-time job, his credit card debt had expanded to $15,000 with interests and fees. Further, Capital One, his creditor, started having his wages garnished; 25% of his pay is now deducted by his employer for payment of his credit card debt, according to ProPublica, who interviewed Evans. “It’s my debt. I want to pay it,” Evans told NPR and ProPublica, who collaborated on the story, but, he added, “I need to come up with large quantities of money so I don’t just keep getting pummeled.”

ProPublica notes that wage garnishment is troubling for everyone involved. “The impact is often stressful and humiliating for employees,” the report notes, who “may feel that they are no longer working for themselves and their futures but for the institutions to which they are indebted. Stress and anxiety are natural outcomes.”  Employees’ credit may also be negatively affected, along with his or her ability to seek out a loan, or even open a bank account. Further, employers also bear the brunt of a garnishment, as oftentimes employee productivity suffers as a result of a pay seizure.

(Photo by Hugh Pinney/Getty Images)

(Photo by Hugh Pinney/Getty Images)

So, under what circumstances can your wages be garnished? According to the United States Department of Labor, “most garnishments are made by court order” though “other types of legal or equitable procedures for garnishment include IRS or state tax collection agency levies for unpaid taxes and federal agency administrative garnishments for non-tax debts owed the federal government.” ProPublica and NPR note that medical debt and consumer debt are becoming quite common; payday and installment lenders, along with hospitals and credit card companies are all common plaintiffs. In fact, since 2007, “the number of employees who had their pay seized for consumer debt roughly doubled,” ProPublica notes.

Lack of financial counsel or access to an attorney are common obstacles facing debtors whose wages are garnished. According to ProPublica, often, when a debtor’s creditors and collectors go to court, “they are almost always represented by an attorney.” Meanwhile, however, “defendants — usually in tough financial straits or unfamiliar with the court system — almost never are.” In fact, ProPublica notes, “often debtors don’t show up to court at all: the most common outcome of a debt collection lawsuit…is a judgement by default.”

In most states, creditors can seize up to a quarter of your paycheck (whether you can afford it or not) after obtaining a court order for wage garnishment. In fact, just four states (Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina and Pennsylvania) have more stringent laws which, for the most part, prohibit wage garnishment for consumer debts, and, if you’re unfortunate to live in Missouri (where, coincidentally, Evans resides), your creditors can both legally take 25% of your paycheck and those creditors can continue to charge you a high interest rate, even after you’ve been sued. In those states where wage garnishment is legal, companies can even take money straight from your bank account, although ProPublica says that there are currently no statistics regarding how often that happens.

ADP notes that there are steps employers can take to make garnishment easier on their employees. The payroll giant suggests that employers offer financial counsel, budget education, and preventative financial wellness training to employees in order to “minimize the destructive impact of wage garnishment and help employees manage their debt.”

Employers, however, are starting to take matters into their own hands. ProPublica notes that the increased rate of garnishment has led the American Payroll Association to request that the Uniform Law Commission draft a model state law restricting wage garnishment. The law, which was requested in 2011, is still being drafted, but employers are hoping states will adopt the law, reducing the burden on employers and working Americans alike.

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