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Sen. Gillibrand, PEF leaders call for real help with public employees’ student debt

By SHERRY HALBROOK

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announces her proposed legislation to make federal programs better help public employees with their student debt. In the background are PEF President Wayne Spence and Executive Board member Ralph Mabb who also spoke at the press conference, which was held at PEF headquarters in Latham. PEF Vice President Sharon V. DeSilva is also shown.

PEF leaders joined U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand at a press conference September 2 at PEF headquarters in Latham as she announced new legislative efforts in Washington to help public employees get relief from student debt.

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), created in 2007, was intended to attract Americans to public service by providing student debt relief after 10 years of public service. However, it has denied benefits to 99 percent of the public employees who have tried to apply for it, and the Temporary Expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness program started in 2018 to resolve that issue has still failed to serve public employees. A federal review of the expanded program showed that fewer than 1 percent of applicants are benefitting.

Some members of PEF and its international labor affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers, are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against a federal contractor involved in administering the program application process that they contend is responsible for misdirecting applicants.

Now, Gillibrand is introducing the What Can You Do For Your Country Act that would close gaps in the current PSLF program, clarify qualifications, and provide guidance to better serve eligible borrowers and help them receive the federal loan forgiveness they’ve earned.

“Many public service employees — including nurses and first responders — have been working on the frontlines as we combat this pandemic,” Gillibrand said. “Unfortunately there is no guarantee that student loans won’t hang over their heads for the rest of their lives, despite the promise made in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. They’ve been denied over clerical errors, over servicing failures, having the wrong type of loan or inadvertently enrolling in the wrong plan,” she said.

PEF leaders show their support for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and her efforts to help public employees deal with student debt. Shown are: PEF Vice President Sharon V. DeSilva, Executive Board member Ralph Mabb; Gillibrand; PEF President Wayne Spence; and PEF Secretary-Treasurer Kay Alison Wilkie.

“This is not right,” she said. “Congress has a duty to fix this deeply flawed program and stand up for our current and future essential employees, who are disproportionately people of color, and who are working to keep our communities safe during this crisis. I will keep fighting to make sure they get the relief and support they need. This program needs to work for the people who have given so much back to their communities. These public servants have lived up to their end of the bargain, now the government has to do the same.”

In his remarks, PEF President Wayne Spence added: “There are about 44 million people in the United States saddled with student loan debt. PEF members provide vital public services to New York residents every day and this pandemic has shown just how much New York relies on its public servants. Our members have been putting their lives on the line to serve the public during this crisis and student loan debt is an added worry for workers and their families. Expansion of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program would help alleviate financial stress for workers who have given so much of themselves. We strongly support this effort and we’re grateful for Sen. Gillibrand’s commitment to help public employees gain access to student loan forgiveness and fix the program so it does what it was intended to for workers who enter public service.”

“It takes years of learning and experience to provide high-quality services,” Spence continued. “The skills and training needed to provide these services often come with a financial burden that can follow public employees for decades.”

PEF Executive Board member Ralph Mabb also spoke at the press conference, saying that a need to defer repayment of his student debt had increased that burden to nearly $100,000. He believes he is one of the very few applicants of the loan forgiveness program who is actually being helped by it.

Among other PEF leaders present to thank the senator for her efforts and voice their support were Secretary-Treasurer Kay Alison Wilkie and Vice President Sharon V. DeSilva.