Slotkin urges DeVos to aid federal employees with student debt during shutdown

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Government workers and their supporters hold signs during a protest in Boston, Friday, Jan.11, 2019.

Washington — Freshman U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin is asking Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to "proactively" reach out to student loan providers to encourage special dispensation for federal employees affected by the partial government shutdown. 

In a Tuesday letter, Slotkin, a Holly Democrat, urged the U.S. Department of Education to do "everything in its power to ease the burden of student loan payments on all federal employees," including urging loan providers to tell borrowers about refinancing options. 

"Many loan companies will consider offering temporary dispensation to federal employees if asked at the most senior levels, so I urge you to demonstrate leadership and reach out to CEOs of the companies personally," Slotkin wrote. 

An estimated 800,000 federal employees are either furloughed or working without pay during the partial shutdown, which is now in its fourth week.

In Michigan, roughly 5,200 civilian workers are affected and more than 1,000 are Coast Guard employees, according to estimates.

"The congresswoman may have missed this, but FSA has been proactively communicating with federal loan borrowers since the shutdown," DeVos spokeswoman Liz Hill said, referring to the Office of Federal Student Aid.

Hill pointed a reporter to a blog post offering options for federal employees to manage student loan payments during the shutdown. 

Those suggestions include temporarily postponing payments through deferment or forbearance or enrolling in an "income-driven" repayment plan that sets repayment according to the borrower's income. 

"If you have little to no income, your payment under the income-driven repayment plans could be as low as $0 per month," the blog says. 

When she worked at the Pentagon, Slotkin was responsible for managing the furloughing of hundreds of personnel at the Department of Defense due to sequestration and the October 2013 government shutdown.

In her letter, Slotkin stressed that furloughed employees and those working without pay will struggle to meet financial obligations — "through no fault of their own." 

"Under normal circumstances, these federal employees would make their student loan payments in a responsible and timely manner. However, these are not normal circumstances," Slotkin wrote. 

"The Department of Education must be aware of how the current government shutdown is negatively impacting federal employees and must assist them in any way it can." 

Slotkin also said some of those who qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness program might experience interruptions to their service.

Other Michigan reps joined 70 Democratic colleagues, led by Oregon Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, in sending a similar letter to DeVos: Reps. Debbie Dingell of Dearborn, Andy Levin of Bloomfield Township and Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills. 

Some federal workers have expressed concern about how financial hardships may affect their security clearances and job stability. 

The FBI Agents Association last week wrote to the White House and congressional leaders last week explaining how agents subject to "high security standards that include rigorous and routine financial background checks" could be affected by the shutdown.

"Missing payments on debts could create delays in securing or renewing security clearances, and could even disqualify agents from continuing to serve in some cases," association leaders wrote. 

Unlike nine federal departments affected by the shutdown, the Education Department is funded through Sept. 30.