Wilbur Ross says unpaid federal workers shouldn’t need food banks, they can just get a loan

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Hundreds of thousands of federal government workers, from the Coast Guard to the National Weather Service, face another payday with out pay on Friday, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross suggests they get a loan to cover it.

On CNBC’s Squawk Box on Thursday, Ross acknowledged he had heard that some federal workers affected by the prolonged shutdown have been going to shelters for food, but said he didn’t understand why.

“I know they are [going to homeless shelters] and I don’t really quite understand why because as I mentioned before, the obligations that they would undertake – say borrowing from a bank or credit union – are in effect federally guaranteed,” said Ross. “So the 30 days of pay that people will be out – there’s no real reason why they shouldn’t be able to get a loan against it and we’ve seen a number of ads from the financial institutions doing that.”

Banks and credit unions are offering affected workers interest-free loans to cover part or all of their paychecks, he said.

“When you think about it, these are basically government-guaranteed loans because the government has committed, these folks will get back pay once this whole thing gets settled down,” Ross said. “So there really is not a good excuse why there should be a liquidity crisis. Now true, the people might have to pay a little bit of interest but the idea that it’s paycheck or zero is not a really valid idea.”

But workers will have to shop around. Two of the largest banks, J. P. Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo, are not offering loans, but they are waiving fees and providing other assistance. Navy Federal Credit Union is offering loans, but they are only available to some of its 8.1 million members.

Ross also said the economic ramifications of the shutdown — the fact that 800,000 workers are not getting paid — is barely a blip on the U.S. economy’s radar. Hypothetically if the workers never got their back pay, “you’re talking about a third of a percent on our GDP. so it’s not like it’s a gigantic number overall.”

New York Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer tweeted that Ross’ comments were “unreal.”

Navy Federal Credit Union, the world’s largest credit union whose members include workers in the Coast Guard and other armed services and several government agencies, has a no-interest loan program that will cover half to all of a missing paycheck up to $6,000 per pay period with no credit check required. The catch is workers can’t get access to the loan program if they don’t have a direct deposit account there already.

Some 19,000 of the 100,000 or so Navy Federal members eligible for the program signed up to have their first paycheck covered earlier this month and more are expected to sign up for it to cover this week’s check, a spokesman said. He wouldn’t disclose how much money had been disbursed already.

Pentagon Federal Credit Union, with 1.7 million members, has two offerings. For affected workers that have an account with direct deposit already, it is offering a no-interest advance on an overdraft line of credit in the amount of the most recent paycheck up to $6,000. This is available to those who have been PenFed members for 12 months and a direct deposit coming from a furloughed agency.

PenFed also has an unsecured, fixed-rate loan for those who don’t have direct deposit there. But this is subject to income verification and credit guidelines.

USAA Federal Savings Bank has a loan program for active Coast Guard and reserve and workers for the NOAA and Public Health Service and their spouses.

SunTrust, a regional bank in the Southeast, has a 90-day no interest, no-payment loan for affected workers who are the bank’s customers as of the end of December. The loans are for $3,000 to $10,000, subject to some credit conditions.

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