Valley credit counselors are on the front line of the economic crisis. And after hearing a suicide over the phone, some are starting to feel the desperation themselves.
BY JIMMY MAGAHERN
Published by: Times Publications, April 2009
The sound rings out from the phone’s speaker like a sharp snap, demanding the attention of every worker on the floor. The woman on the phone, already emotionally drained from spending the last hour trying to talk the caller back from the edge of desperation, now drops her head on her desk, tears streaming from her eyes. A supervisor takes the phone and waits for police to arrive at the caller’s address and confirm everyone’s worst fear: The caller has just fatally shot himself.
It’s the kind of scene you might expect to play out in a training center for new 911 dispatchers. But these are the details from a day staff members can’t forget on the job at Take Charge America, a Phoenix-based non-profit credit counseling and debt management company.
“She heard the bang on the phone, and everyone immediately knew what had happened,” says Richard Eshelman, a new accounts and housing counselor who’s been with TCA for eight years and had previously worked in the loan industry for ten years.
Eshelman says bearing audio witness to suicides over the phone is a rare occurrence in most call centers, but for those working on the front lines of the economic crisis, offering budget counseling and debt-management services to the increasing number of financially distressed Americans, handling suicide threats has become so common that the counselors have become well-versed in protocol for the tragedies.
“We keep the line open, contact security so that they can tap into the call, listen to it and make the decision as to whether or not we need to contact the police in that area,” he says. “Sometimes they’ll have the police go out to the home to do a wellness check, just to make sure the caller’s okay.”
Take Charge America isn’t the only credit counseling firm that’s seen a surge in such calls in recent months. With banks now “hot transferring” their most financially strained customers directly to certified agencies to create last-chance repayment plans, counselors are hearing from distressed debtors in their most desperate hour.
“We’ve had to give our counselors refresher training on how to handle situations like that,” says Bill Druliner, area manager for the Tempe office of GreenPath Debt Solutions, a nationwide non-profit consumer credit counseling service with 37 branch offices throughout the country. “I wouldn’t say those calls are an everyday occurrence, but they have become more common than they used to be.”
Karen Laubinger, who works in the cubicle beside Eshelman and has been with TCA for almost six years, sometimes feels as though she needs the kind of training 911 dispatchers receive.
“I’ve gone to my supervisors and said, ‘You didn’t prepare us for this!’” she says, clearly exasperated. “It’s like the masses are clawing at the door, and there’s not enough of us to help them. We do what we can, but it’s like shooting a squirt gun to try to put out the sun.”
Laubinger says the daily stress of talking with so many angry, scared and desperate people has taken its toll on the counselors.
“There’s a lot of burnout,” she says. “And a lot of us aren’t coping with it, that’s why so many have been calling out sick. Some people drink, some people get stoned. I used to pop Valium; now I pray. But we’re all a little shell-shocked.”
The company recently added a “quiet room” as a respite for stressed-out counselors, and permits breaks to walk around outside or decompress in the cafeteria after trying calls. Still, not everyone is built for the job. Laubinger says one co-worker took to coughing up blood – on purpose, she believes, to avoid having to tell her husband she wanted to quit.
“A lot of people here would quit in a heartbeat, but we know the reality: there’s no jobs out there,” she says. “And isn’t it ironic that this job – listening to everyone else who’s lost theirs – has become the one sure thing?”
Of course, it’s not all horror stories for the people making their living helping those behind on their debts get back on their feet. Lena Vivion, business development coordinator for Take Charge America, says there’s a certain dark humor in seeing what some people prioritize when counselors tell them something’s got to go.
“We heard from one family that was in financial trouble, and they had a membership in a very upscale spa and resort that we tried to talk them into giving up,” she says. “It cost them thousands of dollars a month, but they would not give up that membership. They actually let their electricity and water get turned off, and they would go to the resort and take their showers there! They just couldn’t let the people there know that they were in dire straits.”
Pride’s not the only barrier to smart budgeting. GreenPath’s Bill Druliner says sometimes the family dog can keep underwater homeowners from downsizing to an apartment, and irrational attachments to certain stores can prevent diehard shoppers from cutting up a damaging credit card.
“We had one woman who could have saved over $800 a month in interest if we could have closed out her JCPenney card,” he recalls. “But she said, ‘Well, then I couldn’t get my monthly 10-percent-off deal!’”
Some of the referrals banks have been sending the counselors are previously well-off business owners who simply can’t accept the sudden downturn in lifestyle prescribed to them.
“We hear a lot of complaints about husbands not wanting to give up their boats and motorcycles,” says TCA’s Anthony Paiano. “So then we say, ‘Well, then your kids can’t keep going to that private school.’ Something’s got to give. It’s an abrupt adjustment in lifestyle – today. It can’t wait until next month. And they don’t want to hear that.”
Such cases can be hard ones for which to stir up any sympathy. These are the same artificially affluent show-offs who built their McMansions on sub-prime mortgages and easy credit, and whose fall from thriving to surviving often seems now like just desserts.
But not all of the people who come for credit counseling fit the media profile. Eshelman recalls counseling a man with terminal cancer given six months to live. “I told him, ‘When you’re gone, you’re not going to have to worry about your credit card debt,’ he says. “But all he was scared of was leaving that debt to his wife and kids.”
Laubinger says she’ll never forget speaking with a woman whose 15-year-old daughter became pregnant after having been raped in their gated upscale apartment. The assailants then stole everything in the woman’s apartment – including, Laubinger says, the bed her daughter was raped on.
“She was religious, so she wouldn’t allow her daughter to have an abortion,” says Laubinger. “They decided she’d have the baby. And that [her medical expense] was her credit card debt.
“We hear all these stories about people who bought houses they couldn’t afford and went crazy on the credit cards,” she adds. “Maybe that’s true in some cases. But a lot of them are also regular people, whose jobs are suddenly gone, and whose houses are suddenly worthless. I mean, all of us are living so close to the edge.”
Not surprisingly, credit counselors have become the most popular people in many social circles.
“Oh, yeah, as soon as people hear what I do, they’re in awe,” says Laubinger, laughing. “I was at the gynecologist the other day, and the doctor started asking me credit questions while she was giving me a freakin’ biopsy! It used to be if you were a doctor, you were everybody’s friend. Now it’s a credit counselor!”
Even family members get the counselors talking shop at holiday gatherings.
“It’s really strange, sitting your mom down and talking to her about how to run her finances,” says Alicia Barnes, another TCA counselor. “But that’s the job you carry around with you. You can’t leave it behind at 5 o’clock.”
Cate Williams, a vice president at Money Management International and Consumer Credit Counseling Services, the nation’s largest nonprofit, full-service agency with ten branches in Arizona, says it takes a certain kind of person to make it as a credit counselor. In addition to completing a six-week training course and acquiring the certifications to do things like pull credit reports, counselors must also be part psychologist and financial wiz.
“You have to have great listening skills, be empathetic and nonjudgmental,” says Williams, who started as a counselor herself 28 years ago and went on to hire and train others. “But you also have to know when to disengage from the drama. Because people’s personal lives spill over while they’re talking to you – ‘I can’t believe my husband was that stupid!’ ‘I can’t believe my wife spent all that money!’– and you have to remember you’re not a marriage counselor.”
TCA counselor Matt Harvey says he hears hints of domestic violence in many of the calls he receives. “You get people who are deathly afraid of their spouses finding out about the debt they’ve built up,” he says. “They’re afraid of getting beaten, or getting divorced. And the worst thing is you know they’re not in control of the decision-making.”
Harvey insists he has little trouble remaining objective. “My job is to educate them and open up options,” he says. “But it’s always their decision, not mine.”
Paiano agrees that just giving the clients the right tools and information can be the most important part of a counselor’s job.
“Having confidence in the decision you’re making is half the key,” he says. “And when you know you’re getting that information from somebody who knows what they’re talking about, that can make all the difference. It’s great when you finally get that silence on the other end of the phone. That epiphany. And then you hear, ‘You’re right.’”
Mercifully, the worse the recession gets, the easier it’s becoming to persuade the financially strapped to get on a tight budget.
“If you rewound to a year and a half ago, it was very difficult to even bring up the prospect of people not being able to keep their house,” says Druliner. “But now, because it’s such front-page news, it’s much easier to get people to talk openly about options they never would have considered. People who would have never sought credit counseling – because of pride or whatever – are now coming to us saying, ‘I’ve got to do something about this credit card debt.’”
Druliner says even his higher-income customers are getting into the budget thing. “The private corporate jet is suddenly very unfashionable,” he says with a laugh. “Now it’s socially acceptable to talk about thrift.”
Eshelman says it also helps to remind those getting into a debt management program, where multiple monthly payments are consolidated to lower interest rates and bring delinquent accounts current, that the sacrifice is temporary.
“I like to ask people, ‘Do you have kids? Think back five years ago, when they were in elementary school. Looking back now, didn’t that time whiz by?’ Well, that’s how long you’re talking about being on a debt-management program,” he says.
Those in the business also have hope in the Obama administration’s $275 billion plan to tackle the housing crisis, unveiled in Mesa in February. “It’s still very early – the guidelines just came out in March,” says Druliner. “But this plan has the potential to be workable more than anything else that’s been proposed so far.”
And then there’s simply the healing power of time, which credit counselors often witness firsthand in follow-ups with troubled clients.
“I heard later about a man I had gotten on a debt-management plan who was suicidal – although I was unaware of that at the time,” says Victor Torres, a counselor at Money Management International’s office in Tempe. “He came into a bank four and a half years later where one of our former employees was working. And he told the lady, ‘You know, the counselor who helped me didn’t know that I was about ready to commit suicide if I couldn’t get any help from him. That was my last hope.’ And at the time she met with him, he was not only debt-free but he was pursuing a career as an aircraft mechanic.”
“This job has done a number on me, but it’s also healed my soul,” says Laubinger, who admits she was once one of those well-off women who couldn’t imagine living without a $300 a month hairdresser, until a messy divorce left her nearly penniless herself.
“I feel like this was the mission I was put here to do,” she adds, preparing to head back to the phones. “I couldn’t keep coming in here every day if I didn’t believe that was the mission I was put here to do,” she adds, preparing to head back to the phones. “I couldn’t keep coming in here every day if I didn’t believe that.”