In this series, we explore how different people make ends meet in an age of increasing inequality and job instability, by looking at what they do, how much they make, what the job is like and what their hopes are for the future.
Name: Jason Doss
City: Lubbock, Texas
Occupation: Paramedic, furniture maker, manual laborer
Career Goal: Get out of debt
First to Go to College
I’m a first-generation college student and grew up the very definition of dirt poor. I didn’t start college until I was 23, after working in drilling. I attended a two-year paramedic program from 2006 to 2008 at South Plains College. My plan was to go all the way through graduate school: I wanted to be a research scientist and professor in geophysics — atmospheric sciences, in particular.
I got a job as a paramedic right away because I knew I would have no support from my family while working toward a bachelor’s degree. Then, in 2010, I had a subarachnoid hemorrhage and wasn’t able to start my studies at Texas Tech University. I moved to Austin the next year and took distance-education courses through Texas Tech until I was accepted to the University of Texas at Austin in 2012, and returned to classes in-residence at the UT campus.
I continued classes while working full-time from 2012 to 2016. In 2015, I was told I’d maxed out my financial aid, so I paid my way through the last three semesters of school while I continued working. I was a senior at UT-Austin in good academic standing, but had to leave due to my inability to afford both living in Austin and attending a good public university.
Taking Out Student Loans
The first loans I took out for college were subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford Loans totaling $5,955. I moved back to Lubbock in 2016. I was often staying in a camper behind my grandmother’s house in the country, helping her out with my grandfather, who has developed Alzheimer’s, but I still had a place in town. There, I kept getting letters from a toll-road company about some money I owned on tolls. I ended up hiring an attorney to negotiate down the fees on these tolls, and I paid them off.
Meanwhile, other mail collected at home as I wasn’t there very often. One of those letters was about my student loans, but their envelopes and logo looked very similar to the toll-road company, and knowing that I’d already paid the toll-road company off (and that there was a state-wide investigation into the business dealings of the toll-road company’s billing practices and a pending mass discharge of the debt), I ignored what I thought were further toll-road collection attempts for several months, never even opening the letters.
Well, it was the $5,995 loan. They no longer had my correct phone number and were sending emails to an inbox I never checked anymore. I had defaulted. Of that $5,995 original loan, with penalties and interest, it ballooned to just over $18,000. That’s what is being garnished from my paycheck nowadays.
How Garnishment Works
The garnishment started in May of last year. They garnish a set percentage of my check, which is the maximum allowed: 15 percent. While that doesn’t sound significant, prior to this, I wasn’t making it paycheck to paycheck, so I was doing side work to make ends meet. I’m uncertain of how my job calculated what they take from my check, but I believe it’s taken after federal taxes, but before I pay for things like my benefits from work. It varies between $360 and $480 per check, depending on how much I’ve made. The reason for the variation is that within two weeks of the garnishment starting, my employer cut my hours from 48 to 36 a week, so I lost all my overtime, which I depended upon before the garnishment started.
The garnishment will continue until it’s paid off. It’ll take about two years start to finish — and I’m eight months into it. Meanwhile, I’m also repaying about $80,000 in my other student loans, but I’m struggling and making some late payments right now.
How did it come to this?
The agency notified my employer, asking to notify me and inform me that I had 30 days to get in touch and stop the garnishment, but my employer made no attempt to contact me. My first indication that this was happening was when I noticed nearly $500 missing from my paycheck, itemized as “student loans” on my stub.
I did find one of those letters I thought was the toll-road company and opened it, and it was a warning letter from the student loan debt collection company stating they’d be garnishing soon. I called them and explained that it was an honest mistake. I told them, “If I was looking to not pay my student loans and default on one, don’t you think I’d have defaulted on one of the big ones or not paid any of them at all?”
I was upset with myself, but also very angry with my employer. My employer calls me all the time when I’m asleep at home, and emails me a dozen times a day, but couldn’t be bothered to inform me of the pending garnishment so that I could stop it.
Trending in the Wrong Direction
Most people earn more in their 30s than in their 20s, and I’m trending in the wrong direction here. I’m convinced my employer is taking too much from my check. I sent an email to the woman who does payroll — it’s been nearly two weeks and I’m still waiting for an answer.
Every single dollar I make goes to the other student loans, my regular bills, like rent and utilities and cell phone, and one medication I must take in order to be able to work and function ($450 a month for that). I have no money left over and depend on doing manual labor on Craigslist, or working for family, friends, and furniture work on the side — and I’m still not making it.
Meanwhile, my lifestyle is extremely uncomfortable. Growing up poor, I never had dental care. In 2014, I went to Mexico for it: The dentist talked me into crowning almost every single tooth in my mouth to open up my bite, and for cosmetic reasons. His shoddy work has failed — most of my teeth are mobile now. I went to a clinic here, and he shaved down some of my teeth to the metal under the crown so I could close my mouth completely. I haven’t chewed with my front teeth or incisors in years, I can only use my molars. I’m self-conscious of how it looks and am in constant pain.
I’m wearing shoes with holes in them, and the soles aren’t even glued down, they flap when I walk even though I keep trying to repair them. I have a single pair of scrubs I wash and air-dry every day. I’ve worn them to work for nearly a year now. The crotch ripped and they’ve been sewn back together. I use Cricket Wireless ($50 a month) and have no internet.
My truck’s transmission is going out, and it barely drives. I have no insurance, and my tag went out last year. Its windshield is about to shatter, and the driver-side door won’t close all the way.
I also have terrible headaches. We don’t know what caused the hemorrhage 12 years ago, but I nearly died. I was having a simple outpatient sinus procedure that morning. I was supposed to be home in a couple of hours, but I didn’t go home for months because I was in a coma. Then I had to wear a patch over one eye because I had double vision for two years. I get around fine now other than fatigue and horrendous headaches. They have increased in intensity greatly over the last year, and especially the last few weeks — I don’t even know if I can work anymore at this point.
I did try to sue the doctor over what happened to me, but I was told I “didn’t have a case” by the attorney, and to drop it because I signed a consent and a release stating there were risks involved with any procedure. I found out later that the attorney and doctor are great friends and golf buddies here in little podunk Lubbock, Texas, and that I did have a solid case, but the statute of limitations had passed by the time I learned this. I’d been so focused on my recovery when I went to see that attorney that I just went back to trying to make a meaningful recovery and go back to school and get a better job to make something of myself.
My insurance at work is expensive, high-deductible and all the specialists and diagnostic centers want payment up front. To see the neurosurgeon is $800, of which they want 20 percent up front. I believe they want $400 for the MRI from me. I already did one MRI, and it was pointless — I think the metal in my dental crowns interfered because the radiologist noted he couldn’t read it. I’m certain that my financial stress is not helping my headaches.
Right now, I just want to survive this. I want the cause of the headaches to be found and the symptoms to be resolved. I don’t want this to be my new normal. I want to be able to discharge my loans in bankruptcy. Because of my garnishment, I have a hold placed on me by the financial aid office at The University of Texas at Austin that would allow me to go back if I had the money, the vehicle and the health to even do it. And so, I’m stuck in a low-paying, dead-end job (relative to my debt).
Student loan debt needs to be treated like all other debts that can’t be discharged in bankruptcy. These debt collectors are predatory, like modern-day loan sharks. They’re unsympathetic with your plight, no matter what it is. If I had children or if I ended up on the streets over all this, it would have made no difference — I was told this by the debt collector. I had financial problems before the garnishment started, so it’s not just the garnishment that’s keeping me from doing things like getting dental work or seeing the neurosurgeon, but it’s the garnishment that caused me to go under financially, as I was walking a fine line living paycheck to paycheck — as so many are in this country, especially in states like mine.
Students need to know there’s a cap to how much they can borrow. So even if you’re just a semester or two from finishing, once you run out of money to borrow, that’s it, you’ll have to obtain private loans or pay cash to finish your degree. And if you can’t, like me, you’re saddled with a lot of debt and not a very high earning potential yet to pay it back.
A lot of people are just trying to make it and hoping that Bernie Sanders or someone like him is elected and able to forgive student debt, or allow it to be discharged in bankruptcy. I’ve heard so much moaning and groaning by people who say, “I paid my student loans off, so it’s unfair that they’re going to forgive them now. What are they going to do next, forgive people’s mortgage or car payment?” These people prefer everyone suffer like they did instead of allowing others to benefit from a policy that they never had the opportunity to benefit from. They argue against societal progress.
As a society, future generations are going to benefit from progress that previous generations didn’t have. We didn’t have a treatment for cancer or diabetes at one point in time, so should everybody forgo treatment now because generations behind them didn’t have those options?