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

Key Points
  • Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told CNBC's "Squawk Box" that he doesn't understand why furloughed federal workers face a liquidity crisis when they can just take out a loan.
  • Workers looking to replace their paychecks will have to shop around. Three of the biggest U.S. banks are offering assistance on late fees and charges but not income-replacement loans.
  • Large credit unions like Navy Federal and PenFed are offering no-interest loans to members.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross says unpaid federal workers should take out loans
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross says unpaid federal workers should take out loans

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

Thursday on CNBC's "Squawk Box," Ross acknowledged that 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. Three of the largest banks, J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, are not offering loans, but 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. And some others, like the Department of the Interior's credit union, say they are having delays making shutdown loans due to the high volume of requests.

Wilbur Ross: Federal workers should take out loans until they get paid
Wilbur Ross: Federal workers should take out loans until they get paid

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."


The comments unleashed criticism from Democrats as lawmakers were still trying to hammer out a way to reopen the government. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer tweeted that Ross' comments were "unreal."


And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, responded to Ross' comments. "Is this the let them eat cake kind of attitude? Or call your father for money? Or this is character building for you? It's all going to end up for you very well just as long as you get your paychecks?"

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, also a Democrat, called the remarks "tone deaf." "I've been all over West Virginia, people are hurting," he said. "They've got no cash flow. Making decisions, do I put gas in the car or do I feed the kids? This is real."

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.

"We wanted to make sure members have some financial certainty in uncertain times," said Tynika Wilson, a senior vice president of debit card and fund services at Navy Federal.

Pentagon Federal Credit Union, with 1.7 million members, has two offerings. For affected workers who 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 any affected federal worker. 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 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Public Health Service and their spouses. The offer is a one-time, low-interest loan of at least $2,500 at a 0.01 percent annual interest rate that can be paid it back over 12 months. It is subject to credit approval.

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.

— CNBC's Jacob Pramuk and Dan Mangan contributed to this report.