When leave worker Ira Coleman went unpaid during the 35-day government shutdown, he used his $ 1,250 loan from the Hebrew Free Loan Society of Greater Philadelphia to rent and buy diapers and food for baby for her 9 month old son.
“Nobody really knows what’s going to happen,” said Coleman, an IRS customer service representative, before President Donald Trump signed a bill that lifted the shutdown for three weeks. “Everyone tries to fend for themselves. “
A $ 500,000 donation from an anonymous donor enabled the company to provide interest-free, fee-free loans to 400 federal employees, including Coleman.
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Hebrew free loan volunteers were at the National Constitution Center on January 18, 20, 21 and 22 to process applications. On January 27 and 28 – after Trump’s announcement – the company continued to provide loans to people who requested them.
Executive director Cheryl Barish Erlick said the organization contacted federal workers after the announcement and found there was still a need. Workers were unsure of the future and when they would receive wage arrears.
“There is still uncertainty,” Erlick said. “When I spoke to these people, they said, ‘What are we going to do in three weeks? We could always be in the same situation.
However, new requests will not be processed as people have returned to work. That could change on February 15, a new deadline for Congress and the president to come to some sort of deal for the government to continue operating beyond that date.
Loans of $ 1,250 were available to unpaid and on leave federal workers in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties, as well as Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Mercer counties in New Jersey. Religion was not taken into consideration in the application process. At first, the loan was capped to those earning an annual salary of $ 50,000, but that limit was increased to $ 65,000.
The loan program began when Field Marshal Granor, the former co-chair of the Hebrew Free Loan Society, received a phone call from the donor on Jan. 11, who said he was heartbroken over stories of federal workers who struggled to pay their bills.
The donor wanted to help provide interest-free loans to Jewish and non-Jewish federal employees.
“The phone call came out of nowhere,” says Granor. “I was sitting at work and, I have to admit, it took me completely by surprise.”
The call was made on a Friday afternoon. On Sunday, the company started working to make the loans available as soon as possible.
It was no easy task for the small organization, which is almost entirely run by volunteers, with only two part-time employees. The company had to establish bank accounts and admission documents to prove that the beneficiaries were employees on leave. A place had to be found where the volunteers could distribute the loans.
“We didn’t mean to say no,” said Granor.
Six days after the phone call, the application was operational. The next day, volunteers began to distribute the funds.
The application process has been streamlined to make it easier for workers, Erlick said. They could provide basic information through an online portal. If they qualified, they could come to the National Constitution Center with other documents – such as ID, proof that they were on leave or unpaid, and a paycheck to verify their salary. – and recover the loan. The free loan company did not require a guarantor, a condition it usually applies to other loans.
“We were on a mission to do it because the donor was making it available,” Erlick said. “We wanted to make sure we could help as many people as possible. “
The first day saw a small number of takers, but as the word spread and it became clear that the loans were legitimate, the number of applicants increased.
There was one word the volunteers used over and over again to describe the experience of helping during those days – “heartbreaking.”
Several volunteers recalled one woman in particular who wanted to use the loan to pay for her mother’s funeral.
Board chair Amy Krulik spent several days helping out. There, she heard stories of workers struggling to pay their rent, medical treatment, and student loans.
“It was always about paying their bills and the people they owe,” Krulik said. “The people who were forced to go to work, a lot of them have children. Some of their children are small and have to pay for child care. The babysitter doesn’t want to work for free. It has become a very vicious circle. A guy said to me, ‘Well luckily now I can afford the transit pass to get to work.’ “
Unpaid workers who still had to come to work did not have the option of driving Uber or finding other temporary work to make ends meet, Granor said.
At the National Constitution Center, Granor also assisted with processing by writing checks and delivering them to recipients. He said he saw some of them collapse and cry.
“It was a very humbling experience meeting people who work for a living, who live in my own neighborhood and where the government has taken away their dignity and their ability to pay their bills,” said Granor. “This is not a political statement. It is a statement of fact. Our neighbors are suffering. They suffer. I
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