COVID-19’s impact on the world has been unsparing: it has taken thousands of loved ones and overburdened healthcare systems. Its economic impact has been no less devastating. Government-mandated shutdowns have forced many small businesses to shut their doors. Those lucky enough to remain open have seen a marked decrease in customers. A McKinsey & Company survey polling small and medium-sized businesses found that 59% of small or medium-sized businesses reported experiencing a “significant” drop in personal and business income. 25% had faced such a precipitous drop that they expected they would have to file for bankruptcy in the coming months. This impact will have a broad effect: these businesses represent 48% of the U.S. economy and employ over 60 million people.
COVID-19 has also been unsparing when it comes to consumers. Not only are those employed by small or mid-sized businesses losing their jobs, but even those working at large international companies are also losing their jobs or facing pay cuts. Self-employed individuals have seen their business opportunities vanish. Right now, because of moratoria on foreclosures, evictions, and debt collection, these issues are looming when the overall economy begins to resume. Without any intervening forces, a wave of evictions, foreclosures, repossessions, and bankruptcies is likely to come.
Currently, little protects consumers and small businesses during emergencies or disasters. While larger institutions are expected to have plans, even participating in stress tests with regulators, small businesses usually do not have such protective measures. Indeed, because so many operate on a thin profit margin, investing in plans to address something that seems unlikely to ever happen may seem like a waste of money. Moreover, consumers are not always going to be financially prepared either. The average American has $8,863 in their savings account. This number decreases with age: for example, young single adults under 34 have an average of $2,729 in savings. There are racial disparities too, with an average of $1,500 for Hispanic and $1,000 for Black savings account balances. (Note that this data does not include the unbanked, which is largely composed of Black and Hispanic households.)
In March 2020, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) introduced the Small Business and Consumer Debt Collection Emergency Relief Act of 2020 (the “Act”). The Act amends the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) to provide temporary forbearance periods after “major disasters or emergencies.” The Act could provide much-needed relief to small businesses and American consumers by expanding on current protections currently provided by the FDCPA.
The FDCPA became law in 1978. Its purpose was to crack down on abusive debt collection tactics. In drafting the law, Congress found that abusive debt collection practices led to “personal bankruptcies, to marital instability, to the loss of jobs, and to invasions of individual privacy.” The FDCPA covers several types of consumer debts: mortgage, credit card, student loan, and medical debts, just to name a few. Debts owed by businesses are currently not covered by the FDCPA.
One of the biggest protections afforded under the FDCPA is limiting how and when a debt collector can contact a debtor. Debt collectors cannot harass debtors, misrepresent what can occur if the debtor fails to pay, or contact the debtor in the middle of the night. While the FDCPA is imperfect—consumers regularly report violations—it provides an avenue of recourse and is regularly enforced.
The Act’s Proposals
The Act seeks to amend the FDCPA in several ways. First, the Act amends section 3 of the FDCPA to restrict debt collection during a national disaster or emergency. The Act defines “national disaster or emergency” two ways: (1) one declared by the president under section 401 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act; or (2) “an emergency involving Federal primary responsibility that is determined to exist by the President” under section 501 of that act. Next, the Act prohibits debt collectors from numerous actions ranging from charging higher fees or interest rates to seizing the property or asset at issue. Moreover, the Act pauses any legal action against the debtor, even if the proceeding began before the disaster was declared. Finally and crucially, the Act extends FDCPA protections during national disasters or emergencies to small businesses.
The Act is a way of addressing some of the consumer protection shortcomings of the CARES Act. For example, there is a 120 day moratorium on foreclosures and evictions, but only for those who have federally-backed mortgages, live in buildings financed by federally-backed mortgages, or receive rental funding through a federal program. While this covers a significant number of individuals and homes, about 30% of Americans are left out of this provision. The debt collection moratorium under the Act would extend to those Americans. It also addresses the issue the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear: small businesses suffer when they are forced to shut down, as they may not always have the resources or option to continue operating virtually. Their financial troubles largely came as the result of a forced shutdown. More generally, the Act’s amendments can cover future national emergencies or pandemics.
While this is not an overall solution to COVID-19’s economic impact, it can provide some relief to consumers and small businesses. It may allow people to be more understanding of opening up gradually rather than quickly, too. While it does not solve a reduced or lack of income, having some assurance that the car will not be repossessed or a debt collector will not be regularly calling can provide some much needed relief in what has been a stressful time. Currently, debtors do not have such relief. Despite the pandemic, debt collectors have still been calling consumers. In Massachusetts, the Attorney General’s Office sought to ban debt collection during the height of the pandemic. However, a federal judge ruled against the state’s emergency resolution. FTC guidance is not particularly helpful either: it recommends talking things out with the debt collector and asking that they stop calling. Congress has already done a lot through the CARES Act to help consumers during the pandemic. To further assist them, Congress should pass Senator Brown’s bill.