On Tuesday, the D.C. Council passed supplemental COVID-19 emergency legislation that provides comprehensive, necessary protections against debt collection to District consumers. Importantly, the protections in the new law will prevent debt collectors from seizing money in a bank account – including critical COVID-19 stimulus payments – from consumers during and immediately after the public health emergency.
The changes were advocated by a coalition of several local anti-poverty groups, including Legal Aid, Tzedek DC, and Legal Counsel for the Elderly - and with support from Attorney General Karl Racine.
The legislation provides broad protection for District consumers against the harmful impact of debt collection by halting most debt collection activities during the public health emergency and 60 days thereafter. Among other protections, debt collectors are prohibited from:
- Initiating new debt collection actions, including filing or threatening to file collection lawsuits in court.
- Garnishing wages and attaching bank account funds – a critical protection generally, but especially timely in light of its protection of CARES Act stimulus payments that will be direct deposited into many District residents’ bank accounts in the coming weeks and months. Such funds must remain available for residents to pay for basic necessities including food, housing, and medical supplies during this unprecedented time.
- Visiting or threatening to visit a debtor’s home or place of employment, or communicating with a debtor about the collection of debt in any public place.
The law also generally prohibits debt collectors from initiating debt collection communications with debtors during the covered time period - with some exceptions, including an exemption for original creditors. The debt collection protections apply to automobile repossessions, but exclude collection activity relating to mortgage loans (some mortgage relief for District homeowners is provided in a separate section of the law).
Legal Aid commends the D.C. Council for protecting District residents from the immediate-term financial ruin that would otherwise come from the dangerous combination of debt collection and widespread income loss during the public health emergency – and for building in breathing room on the back end of the emergency to give consumers a chance to begin what is sure to be a long road to recovery.