Getting Time Off Work To Support Disabled Kids Shouldn’t Be Hard. For Some Parents, It Is.

Brim Custen knows the importance of a school-based support services for their son, who has oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and autism. Every year, Custen works alongside a team of therapists, clinicians, advocates, and teachers to come up with a plan that helps their son succeed in class and minimizes meltdowns, so that he can learn what he’s at school to learn.

But for their son’s first few years of school, when Custen was working in Draper, Utah, attending the annual Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings that laid out this plan could have threatened their job. To participate in meetings 40 miles away, “I would need to use PTO, and there would need to be space available in the schedule for me to leave,” they explained. “If someone else had already claimed time off that day before I had the chance to, then I wouldn’t be able to take the time off myself without receiving a strike for an absence, which would put my job security at risk.”

Custen’s son receives his services in part through IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), which serves around 14 percent of public school students. IDEA guarantees a right to an IEP, which includes an evaluation of a student’s educational abilities and needs and provides a detailed plan for any support services, specialized instruction, or accommodations they may need due to a disability. These accommodations may include alternative assignments, permission to record a spoken lecture, large print textbooks, extended testing times, assistance with organizing a desk space, or access to speech-to-text software, among many others.

Parents can be crucial partners when it comes to selecting accommodations in an IEP, but Custen’s job was making it impossible to get a seat at the planning table. Meanwhile, Custen’s ex’s schedule allowed him to regularly attend — a disparity that led to family stress and communication gaps around their son’s education plan. Their son’s behavior was different when he was around his father than when he was around Custen, for example, in part because their ex struggled to accept that their son was neuroatypical.

“He would often go into meetings with unrealistically rose-tinted lenses on our son’s behavior and progress,” Custen explained. “He would skew his own perception of our son’s capabilities and milestones. For instance, he would do 90 percent of the work in getting him dressed while our son would do 10 percent of it (such as pulling up pants or sticking arms through sleeves once his shirt was already pulled on for him) and claim that our son was capable of dressing himself.” This led to confusion over what kind of assistance their son would actually need at school.

Custen’s frequent absences meant the services their son received were selected based solely on his behavior around his dad. “The fact that I was not present at these meetings meant that they were taking him for his word on our son’s at-home behavior,” Custen shared. In turn, “they would have to hear from me later and go through the process of editing notes and plans for the IEP. I can’t imagine that it was easy or comfortable for the team helping our son to be caught in the middle of such a back-and-forth between [me and] my ex either.”

Some parent advocates believe problems like Custen’s could be partly alleviated by a recent announcement from the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). The agency responded to a parent whose employer denied their request to take intermittent Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave to attend IEP meetings. The agency clarified that employees whose children have “serious health conditions” (those for which a patient receives either inpatient care or continuing care from a medical provider) requiring IEPs are able to take time off under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to attend IEP meetings without losing their job or continued health insurance coverage.  FMLA allows eligible employees to take up to 12 workweeks of leave in a 12-month period for serious health conditions or to care for family members.

According to the decision, parents can use FMLA leave to attend IEP meetings because they involve medical decisions, discussions of children’s health and well-being with respect to those decisions, and the provision of proper physical and psychological care. Notably, the DOL also said a child’s doctor doesn’t have to be present in order for a parent to use FMLA time to attend their IEP meeting.

Amanda Morin, an education writer/author, parent advocate, and former teacher, knows many parents simply won’t be able to take advantage of the clarified policy, especially if they are low-income. Seasonally, intermittently, or self-employed parents are rarely eligible for FMLA, which is restricted to private employers with 50 or more employees working for them within 75 miles of a central worksite. Employees are only eligible if they’ve worked for at least 1,250 hours across the 12 months prior to the leave and have worked for their current eligible employer for a full year.

“Even parents who do have FMLA may not always be able to afford the time off if it will have to be unpaid,” she explained. Overall, around 59 percent of U.S. workers were covered by FMLA as of 2012. That number may have shifted downward since then due to the influx of freelance positions and the rise of the gig economy.

In many ways, this decision looks like a major move towards greater equity in education. Family members work schedules are often intimately connected to their children’s IEP meetings. For researcher, writer, and former teacher Mireya Vela, IEPs have always been a part of her life — and her job choices. Vela’s son, now 25, began his IEP at four years old after his speech delays and other developmental issues became apparent.

Vela tailored her work schedule, and even her choice of career, around her son’s educational and medical needs. “From the time my son was six to the time he graduated high school, I only worked part time. I couldn’t work longer than that,” Vela said. “I often had 2-3 jobs at the same time. But all my jobs worked around my need to drop everything and run to the school.” What’s more, Vela consistently advocated for meetings longer than the customary school-requested 45 minutes, and attended them flanked by a support team of clinicians and advocates — which often meant some rescheduling.

Custen saw a sea change after becoming more directly involved.

A parent’s ability to take FMLA time off for an IEP meeting will also depend on their child’s exact diagnosis and necessary support services. Morin said “it may also be challenging for parents of kids who don’t have a medical diagnosis, but have an IEP, because getting documentation of the need for leave isn’t as clear-cut.” There might be cases where a child is in clear need of services to help them with a disability or developmental delay, for example, but their family is uninsured or underinsured or can’t afford to see a high-level specialist. In other cases, a student might have to go through an extended period of testing or medical assessment before they receive a final medical diagnosis. Without a documented specific diagnosis, a parent may struggle to prove their eligibility for FMLA leave.

Still, Morin calls the ability to use FMLA intermittently for IEP meetings “a step in the right direction,” especially because not all eligible parents may have known that they could use time off for this purpose. “I’m pleased that it shines a light on the fact that an IEP meeting is tied into a child’s health and well-being,” she said. “I think, for parents who have not been able to leave work to get to meetings, knowing this is available, and feeling confident enough to bring it to an HR department to use the new policy, has the potential to be really empowering and increase family-school engagement.”

An equal, engaged dynamic between schools and families is critical, says Morin, because parents often understand their children more intimately. Parents also have more knowledge about how a student might learn or interact in different settings, which could impact the frequency or types of services they may need.

The DOL’s recent announcement marks a potential step forward in terms of recognizing IEPs as crucial to children’s well-being, health, and quality of life, rather than positioning them as optional “add-ons” to a one-size-fits-all public school education. For Brim Custen, family-school engagement was indeed the driving factor in their son’s well-being and educational progress at school. Later, when Custen began working as the communications coordinator for the Utah Pride Center, their new employer’s greater flexibility allowed for much more active participation in the development of their son’s IEP, and they saw a sea change after becoming more directly involved.

Initially, Custen’s inability to attend IEP meetings forced both families and school administrators to wade through red tape as they struggled to come to a full understanding of exactly what Custen’s son could and couldn’t do. “When he would move to a new classroom with new teachers, there would be some growing pains as they adjusted to the fact that I would seldom be present in person at these meetings,” explained Custen, “and I would end up having to disagree with my ex and provide different perspective after the fact through email or phone call.”

No longer mired in confusion, the team working with Custen’s son was able to communicate more clearly and flesh out a comprehensive plan to help him pay attention and regulate his emotions both in and out of class. “Thanks to there being an IEP in place and a team of teachers and therapists who understood his needs and worked within them, I’m proud to say that my son is doing vastly better in his behavior, self-control, and retention of information in school than we had anticipated he’d be able to,” Custen shared.



Disabled People Scramble to Cope When California Kills Power to Prevent Wildfires

This week, California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a package of 22 laws aimed at fighting wildfires and addressing the utilities that have played a growing role in the state’s wildfire season, one made more severe by climate change. The deadliest fire in modern California history started with malfunctioning electrical equipment that sparked a blaze which ultimately spanned 153,000 acres and killed 85 people, dealing out $16.5 billion in damage.

Despite hazardous conditions in the days before the Camp Fire became a conflagration, Pacific Gas and Electric company elected not to take advantage of one of the most aggressive and effective tools in its wildfire prevention arsenal: De-energization, also known as a public safety power shutoff (PSPS).

According to California’s Public Utilities Commission, in 2015, the last year for which data are available, utility lines accounted for just 8 percent of fires, but they burned 150,000 acres, more than all other causes combined. Many of the state’s lethal fires have been attributed to power equipment. Utilities may opt to de-energize their lines when a lethal combination of weather factors converge: It’s hot, dry, and extremely windy.

While utilities determine when to make the call in different ways, the National Weather Service red flag warning of increased fire risk is often a factor. More than 50 percent of Northern California alone is at “elevated” or “extreme” fire risk, putting hundreds of thousands of residents in the danger zone. California’s Public Utilities Commission is deep in the heart of rulemaking around the relatively new approach to wildfire prevention as the state also explores options like burying utility lines and more aggressive vegetation management for preventing utility-associated wildfires.

But de-energization comes at a cost. When it occurs, customers can be without power for hours or days. Utilities are supposed to provide advance notice, but some customers say that’s not happening. Instead, they complain recent Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison shutoffs have occurred with insufficient notice and been accompanied with outdated, confusing information on estimated time of power restoration, including lags in translating outage information.

This is a particular concern for customers who are electricity-dependent. In any given outage block, there may be hundreds or thousands of customers who registered with the utility to indicate they rely on medical equipment to stay healthy, and, in some cases, to stay alive.

Known as “medical baseline customers,” they may require ventilators and similar life support equipment, while others have conditions that can become uncomfortable or dangerous without medical equipment and cooling systems, or have medications that must be refrigerated. In recognition of their increased energy needs, utilities provide them with an extra allotment of energy at the base pricing tier. Other customers may have similar electricity needs despite not being enrolled in the medical baseline program, for a variety of reasons.

Utilities are supposed to be proactive about providing early and frequent notice to medical baseline customers to ensure they’re aware of the possibility of an outage. Kari Gardner, Southern California Edison’s Senior Manager of Consumer Affairs, explained that Edison, like PG&E and other utilities, has a multi-step warning process including a two-day warning that an area is being monitored, a one-day notice, and, ideally, one to four hours of notice before an area is de-energized, though rapidly-changing weather conditions can make this challenging. The utility, she said, is always working on better ways to reach customers, with a particular focus on medical baseline customers; the utility sends out door knockers for notification if they can’t get through on the phone, for example.

Jill Jones, who lives in Sonoma County near the site of 2017’s infamous Tubbs Fire, an area primarily served by Pacific Gas and Electric, is not a medical baseline customer but does have a condition called hereditary angioedema type III, which causes sudden intense swelling, including of her airways. She needs air conditioning and a low-stress life to reduce the risk of swelling episodes, and she also relies on a very expensive medication that must be refrigerated. “As soon as the air conditioner stops, the clock… when I will have an attack starts ticking fast,” she said.

Her condition was foremost on her mind when warnings of a possible shutdown started swirling in late September. Jones tried to track information about de-energization events through the PG&E website as well as social media. “They did not respond to my pleadings for them to consistently post updates. Their website and its map were either not updated and had info only from the day or two previous,” she said, noting the utility’s social media was slightly more current, but that not everyone could access it. She turned into an information conduit for those with limited computer literacy struggling for access to current information.

Lack of clarity led her to pack up and leave to stay with family outside the threatened zone, fearing that her power might be cut. “I have had to set up an emergency ‘go bag’ with a plan and network of family ready to house and come get me should we experience a Public Safety Power Shutoff. We have had to set up my parents’ RV to be ready to both run AC and safely house my medications should we lose power,” she said.

This issue isn’t just access to accurate and current information in multiple common languages about the possibility and status of a de-energization, though. The state’s information site, with language borrowed by the utilities, includes planning that is not necessarily practical or accessible for all medical baseline customers or others who rely on electricity for survival. Planning ahead for customers with medical needs is expensive, and disabled people are at a much higher risk of poverty — 26.8 percent compared to 10.3 percent for nondisabled people. In rural areas like those prone to shutoffs due to worries about vegetation on utility lines, that risk is even more extreme.

We have had to set up my parents’ RV to be ready to both run AC and safely house my medications.
– Jill Jones

Recommendations include suggestions to buy generators or backup batteries, which are costly, and not always safe or practical in apartments and some rental single-family homes. Customers are also advised to “stay with a friend,” for those who can travel and have friends with accessible homes outside the range of the de-energization. The utilities operate respite centers with power and cooling, but they’re only open during the day.

This is something Gardner says utilities recognize when making the call for a PSPS and developing resources for medical baseline customers who may be caught up in fire prevention efforts. Utilities and the state are both working on programs to increase the affordability and practicality of emergency planning. One of the new bills Newsom signed encourages utilities to provide more support; tools such as microgrids and backup batteries can help electricity-dependent customers and their larger communities.

“What needs to happen is a genuine consideration of the risks of keeping the system on versus the risks of shutting it off,” said Melissa Kasnitz, a disability rights attorney with the Center for Accessible Technology. “Right now, utilities are only focused on one side of that equation.”

Kasnitz noted that while ventilator users and others with devices that require electricity may come to mind, there are other implications for medical baseline customers. For example, like Jones, diabetics need to keep medication in the fridge. In a country where one in four diabetics reports rationing insulin due to cost, losing a supply could be devastating.

Similarly, people relying on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program could lose all their food in an outage, with no budget for buying more — and the utility isn’t liable for that loss. And, said Kasnitz, people who work low-wage jobs who miss work because their employers can’t open might have to reshuffle their finances, putting prescription medication behind food or other needs.

Those customers might not necessarily be registered as medical baseline customers, highlighting the ripple effect of these outages, though she is swift to note that wildfires are also tremendously disruptive and sometimes fatal.

The debate over de-energization pits competing public health interests against each other, and it also has stakes far beyond California’s borders. Utilities in other states may begin to consider de-energization as an option in dangerous wildfire conditions with climate change increasing hot, dry weather. Disability advocates hope that consideration includes better planning for electricity-dependent customers with limited means as California learns how to navigate its new landscape. That’s something Gardener says is on Edison’s mind: “I want our most vulnerable customers to know that we do recognize that there’s additional risks when outages occur.”





My Neighborhood Shows How the ‘Opportunity Zone’ Tax Program Just Helps the Rich

My walk to the Metro each day takes me past a construction site, where there are currently four large cranes looming overhead. Walking along Rhode Island Ave. in the morning means having several large trucks barrel past, exhaust fumes spewing, loaded with building materials bound for what’s being called the “Bryant Street development.”

In the next couple of years, this stretch of northeastern Washington, D.C., will transform from a hole in the ground next to a church and down the road from a McDonald’s and a Sav-A-Lot into an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, some luxury apartment buildings, and, rumor has it, a grocery store.

And because the area has been designated an Opportunity Zone, investors will be able to reap hefty tax benefits for the money they put into these projects — which shows exactly how the Opportunity Zone program, created by the 2017 Trump tax cut law, has gone awry.

Opportunity Zones are intended to spur investment in low-income communities that aren’t traditionally targets for businessfolk or developers. In exchange for putting their money into areas usually starved of capital and leaving it there for a certain amount of time, investors will pay lower tax rates than they would otherwise. Leave an investment in an Opportunity Zone for 10 years, and the capital gains earned will be tax-free; returns to investors could be increased by up to 70 percent thanks to the program, according to one estimate.

More than 41,000 Census tracts nationwide were eligible to be designated as Opportunity Zones, and investors are already pushing for the upcoming 2020 Census to expand those areas.

On the surface, Washington D.C.’s Edgewood is a perfect fit. The poverty rate in the neighborhood is nearly 30 percent, and the median income is just $28,000, according to Census Bureau data, in a city where the median income is above $82,000.

But there are a couple of big problems. First, the developments that will receive tax benefits because of the Opportunity Zone were well underway before the bill creating Opportunity Zones even existed, thanks in part to a $24 million subsidy from the city itself. The lead development company, MRP, freely acknowledges that its project would have gone ahead without tax incentives.

“We were well underway, almost finalized with our development plans and our program and mix [before the Opportunity Zone designation],” John Begert, a vice-president at MRP, said at the project’s groundbreaking in July, according to WAMU. “We were able to take advantage of it, but it wasn’t an original thesis of the business plan and of the development.”

This is a problem endemic to both Opportunity Zones specifically and corporate tax incentives more broadly: They end up subsidizing companies for investments those companies would have made anyway. According to one study, up to 75 percent of tax incentives given to companies in order to locate somewhere specific actually had no bearing on that company’s decision.

All across D.C. the sort of development occurring in Edgewood has occurred without anything like an Opportunity Zone to incentivize it. A similar debate took place around the building of D.C.’s publicly-funded baseball stadium: Proponents like to point to the surrounding economic development as proof that the $750 million Nats Park was a good investment, but don’t really grapple with the fact that other neighborhoods across the breadth of D.C. developed in exactly the same way without a taxpayer-funded sports complex.

Edgewood is gentrifying rapidly.

But there’s also another question worth asking: Even if the Opportunity Zone were driving actual investment in the neighborhood, would that investment help the people at whom it’s ostensibly aimed? Like much of D.C., Edgewood is gentrifying rapidly; it’s a historically black neighborhood with more and more white people (myself included) moving in and driving up real estate prices, as it’s one of the few pockets of the city where there is any chance of a young professional being able to purchase a house somewhat near the Metro system. For white households in the neighborhood, the poverty rate is 2 percent; for black households, it’s 31 percent, according to the Census.

Rent and home prices are inevitably on their way up; there are currently two homes within the Opportunity Zone that are on the market for around $950,000, per Redfin. This will all hurt current residents who can’t afford higher living expenses.

Those same residents threatened with displacement likely won’t be able to take advantage of the new housing being built either, because D.C.’s average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,550, and many so-called luxury buildings charge much more. Future jobs at the movie theater or other retailers likely won’t pay enough to cover that amount, and just 116 of a total 1,450 units in the Bryant Street development will be designated as affordable housing under the city’s Inclusionary Zoning program, which allows for units to be set aside for families making 50, 60, or 80 percent of the area’s median income.

The new development is meant to entice new people, not aid the ones already there.

Small businesses are under pressure due to the increasing property costs. Our local dry cleaner recently closed after the owners’ landlord refused to renew their lease. It will be replaced by a condo building. In order to make way for the new development, a Big Lots store, a couple of fast food joints, an H&R Block, and a kind of strange drum shop were also all forced to close.

There are no requirements that investors even track whether members of the community are benefiting from the money and amenities Opportunity Zones bring in. D.C. received a grant from a private foundation that will enable it to do at least some data collection, but the zone is already here and the grant was just announced this week. So, the cart is very much before the horse.

As city councilmember Brianne Nadeau wrote last year, “Unfortunately, the design of the program has some serious flaws, and will likely accelerate the patterns of displacement caused by runaway capital that we’ve already seen for decades, but on a federally-subsidized scale.” Indeed, the developer who receives a tax break that had nothing to do with the decision to invest in Edgewood undeniably benefits from the Opportunity Zone. But after that, it’s unclear who else comes out as a winner. There will almost inevitably be displacement, and nothing is being done to help the folks affected by it, particularly those who aren’t homeowners.

My neighborhood certainly isn’t the only one in D.C. where projects that were already planned, surrounded by blocks that were gentrifying all on their own, received Opportunity Zone designations. Nor is this a situation unique to the capital city. But it’s a particularly egregious example of how the rhetoric around a program meant to help economically disadvantaged communities doesn’t come close to matching the reality.

To sum it up, that my neighborhood is an Opportunity Zone is patently absurd.



Eugene Scalia Ruled It’s Ok to Make Disabled Workers Soil Themselves on the Job

On Tuesday, the Senate Health, Labor, Education, and Pensions committee will vote on the nomination of Eugene Scalia to be the next secretary of labor. A long-time employment lawyer, Scalia has a robust track record in pushing back on policies intended to make workplaces safer, more accommodating, and more accessible, particularly for workers with disabilities.

During the course of his career, Scalia has denied the science behind repetitive stress injuries, prevented UPS drivers injured on the job from having the ability to form a class to sue, and — most outrageously — insisted that an employee at Ford Motor Company should soil themselves at work rather than be allowed the privacy to work from home.

In the Ford case, Scalia defended the company against a claim that it had failed to accommodate a person with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. The plaintiff had requested telework as a reasonable accommodation, which the company refused and countered with an offer to move the employee’s cubicle closer to the restroom.

When the plaintiff explained that simply standing up could trigger a loss of bowel control, Scalia argued that they should have taken “self-help steps such as using Depends (a product specifically designed for incontinence) and bringing a change of clothes to the workplace.” In other words, when an employee asked for support, Scalia argued that she should wear a diaper and be ready to change her pants.

Scalia’s nomination has the potential to set back disability employment policy by decades.

This is not just a case for me. It is personal. As a person who has lived with inflammatory bowel disease for 34 years, I have requested and received the accommodations cited in this case. It’s not unusual for me to need quick access to a bathroom four, six, or eight times during a workday. On the days when that number is higher, I take advantage of telework. On days when it’s lower, I come to the office confident that my disability will not keep me from the work I love. Not because I’m forced to wear Depends — which would put me at risk for complications from inflammation or infection — but because of laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act that protect my right to accommodations that work for me.

Scalia’s nomination has the potential to set back disability employment policy by decades. The Department of Labor has a critical role in driving policy on disability employment, helping make the workplace safer and more accessible, and helping move the needle away from subminimum wage employment.

It might be easy to dismiss this administration’s nomination of Scalia as just one more dangerous appointment competing for our attention. That’s not what I see here. What I see is a nominee who endangers every worker’s right to reasonable accommodations. Not just the 3 million Americans who live with bowel disease, but the more than 60 million Americans with disabilities who depend on the ADA to protect them from discrimination by employers.




Debt Collecting Promises High Pay. All It Costs Is Your Soul.

Trevor Powell* was a high school student working part-time at Target in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in 2007 when he first heard about job openings for collections agents at First Premier Bank from a friend’s mom.

“I just wanted a job that paid more,” Powell explained. First Premier offered him $16 an hour in base pay, which could rise with incentive pay to $18 to $20 an hour depending on Powell’s success in collecting debts.

In a country where middle-class wages are hard to come by without a college degree, the comparatively good pay of debt collection can be a big draw. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly pay in 2018 for debt collectors was $17.32, a big step-up in pay from other lines of work such as retail sales ($12.75) or fast food ($10.89).

71 million U.S. adults have fallen behind on a bill and now have debt in collections. According to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, U.S. household debt is at an all-time high — and behind our system of easy credit are roughly 300,000 debt collectors, working for both lenders and 3rd-party collection agencies, whose job it is to recover money from American families.

These debt collectors may not match your expectations of slick-talking hucksters willing to do whatever it takes to get paid. Like many of the debtors they collect from, the collectors are often low-income themselves. While most have a high-school diploma or equivalent, some, like Powell, are teenagers. 69 percent of debt collectors are female.

At relatively low wages, debt collectors are expected to engage in what University of Brighton psychologist Carl Walker has called “mental warfare” in order to collect; the industry can leave behind scars for both the borrowers and the collectors. It’s a grueling job. In a 2016 Consumer Financial Protection Bureau survey, debt collection agencies with more than 250 employees reported an average turnover rate of 75 percent to 100 percent.

If you were born into the middle class, you’ve probably never heard of Powell’s former employer, First Premier, but it’s a major player in America’s system of subprime credit. At one point, it accounted for as much as 47 percent of all subprime credit card solicitations sent out in the United States, and now it’s the nation’s 12th biggest issuer of Mastercard credit cards.

First Premier credit cards often come with eye-popping fees. One, for example, has a $300 credit limit, a $95 one-time “program fee,” $75 in total monthly and annual fees in the first year, $120 in monthly and annual fees in all subsequent years, and a 36 percent APR. Those exorbitant prices draw in only those consumers with few other options for credit.

As Powell explained, if the borrower couldn’t pay on the spot, the collections agents at First Premier would ask for a “promise to pay.” There was folk wisdom about what different promises to pay meant: a $20 money order on the 3rd of the month meant the customer was on disability, and if it was coming on the first of the month, it meant the customer was a senior collecting Social Security. Getting a customer’s checking account credentials was ideal — it let First Premier automatically debit the customer’s bank account on the specified date — but debit and credit card payments, payments by Western Union, or money orders were all fair game as well. A lot of customers were surprised or angry about how much they owed.

The job “definitely broke you down,” said Powell. “At a certain point, you felt like you weren’t doing the right thing.” Powell “no-called, no-showed” — e.g. got fired after failing to show up to work — a little more than a year after he started. “The lion’s share [of customers] probably would have been better off if they had never opened the card,” he said.

The company’s current interest rates in Arizona were as high as 180 percent per year.

When Chaz Fertal went in for his job interview at Checkmate in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2010, he was originally afraid he was getting duped in a Craigslist scam. Fertal showed up to an office that appeared deserted, with blacked-out windows, only to find out the building had been intentionally obscured; Checkmate was concerned that angry customers would try to track the debt collectors down. Fertal’s base pay at Checkmate was around $2,000 per month, but offered the possibility of big commission checks. Fertal says his biggest was around $4,400, meaning your pay could more than double if you were good at getting borrowers to make payments.

A current Checkmate employee confirmed over the phone that the company’s current interest rates in Arizona were as high as 180 percent per year. As Fertal explained, a customer wouldn’t actually have to make progress on paying down their debt for the Checkmate collector to earn his commission. If customers fell behind and went into collections, Fertal said he would earn commission whether he convinced them to pay the full balance or if he convinced the borrower to pay off outstanding interest while taking out a new loan. For the purposes of commission, taking on a new loan counted as “paying off” the old one.

Fertal said the incentive scheme encouraged agents to push borrowers into these loan “rollovers.” “You’d talk to a customer on the phone who after four or five months would still owe the whole amount” and they’d be outraged, Fertal said, when they realized the payments they’d made had done nothing to pay down their debt.

For Fertal, there was a clear day, he said, when he realized he didn’t want to work at Checkmate anymore. When Checkmate customers applied for loans, they typically gave Checkmate a bank account routing and account number, giving Checkmate the right to withdraw payments; if a customer went past due, the loan entered default, and, Fertal says, Checkmate would attempt to withdraw the whole outstanding loan balance from the customer’s checking account. If Checkmate wasn’t successful at withdrawing the full amount, they’d break the balance into smaller amounts and try again — Fertal said the company’s practice was to make three attempts per day, starting at 4:30 in the morning, just after any direct deposits would have landed in the borrower’s account overnight. The only way, Fertal says, a borrower could stop the process, was by making a promise to pay and providing a credit card number or debit card number to do so.

Fertal remembers one borrower well. Overnight, Fertal says, Checkmate had taken the woman’s “entire paycheck, I think it was a thousand dollars,” he says. “She had two or three kids. She told me, ‘I have nothing to feed my kids, our refrigerator is empty, they took everything.’ I went to the ACH department and they couldn’t reverse it. She told me, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do, the only thing I can think of is killing myself’ — and I knew it wasn’t a lie, you could hear the loss in her voice. I remember telling her, ‘your kids need you more than anything right now, and that that’s not the answer.’ I was trying to see if there was anything we could do, even taking out a new loan, but she still had a balance on her existing loan.”

Fertal quit shortly after that phone call in 2011, and he said he still thinks about that woman and her family.

Fertal and Powell’s experiences show the toll subprime credit and debt collection industries take not only on their customers, but on the front-line agents as well. These debt collection jobs offer Americans a step up in financial security, in exchange for taking on the difficult role as intermediary between high-priced lenders and consumers in dire straits.

“The environment would just be toxic. You’d get a worse and worse impression of people,” said Fertal. “The reality is that you’re not talking with people who are in a great place in their life.”

Editor’s note: Trevor Powell asked that his name be changed for privacy.

This post has been edited to clarify Fertal’s commission earnings.