State board quietly schedules vote on work-from-home rules for collection agencies

State board quietly schedules vote on work-from-home rules for collection agencies
Should collection agents be allowed to work from home? New rules allowing that to happen have been proposed by the state, but advocates say it’s a temporary measure being snuck through with little notice. (file photo)

In the midst of a pandemic and protests, Washington’s Collection Agency Board has called an emergency meeting for tomorrow.

Why? So members can vote to allow debt collectors to work remotely.

It's something that's set off alarm bells for consumer advocates like Sam Leonard, a lawyer and board member of the Northwest Consumer Law Center.

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“The financial stresses on people right now are unprecedented. And how it could be in the public welfare to loosen the rules on collection agencies so they can continue to collect, or try and collect, from Washingtonians is beyond me,” says Leonard.

He adds that the rule change has serious security implications for consumers.

“You’re talking people’s social security numbers, their birth dates, very private information that you don’t want – from somebody’s house,” says Leonard.

Under current law, collection agencies can only operate at the licensee’s address: an office building or authorized branch. Leonard says that’s because the industry is strictly regulated.

“It’s harder to enforce and ensure those regulations are being followed: for instance, how often somebody can be called, when they can be called – those are things that require training and require oversight by the collectors themselves,” says Leonard.

But it’s the timing of this meeting that has consumer lawyers upset.

There was just 48 hours notice given, and the proposed rule was released around noon today.

Finally, there will be no public comment.

“This is closed government. Secret meetings and secret rules, it’s not okay, says Leonard.

We contacted board members and asked about the timing of the meeting.

One member, Scott Kinkley, who represents the general public on the board, told me:

“We unfortunately do not have the benefit of time or input from the public or the collection industry before considering the proposed take-it or leave-it change.”

Board member Mari Neubauer also represents the public and says she has concerns about the proposal, namely that input from the public and industry experts has not been allowed.

“The rule presented to me yesterday afternoon is vague and does not address key aspects of accountable collection practices that could be lost in remote work, such as centralization and oversight, training, and secure data collection,” says Neubauer.

Two other board members represent the collection industry and work for collection companies. One declined to comment, while the other did not respond. The chair of the board, a Deputy Assistant Director of the Department of Licensing, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Leonard, with the Consumer Law Center, says the board tried to implement the same rules in March. And now, it’s happening all over again.

“It feels like a fast one was being pulled,” says Leonard.

In a statement, the Washington Collectors Association says:

“We are hopeful that the CAB [Collections Agency Board] will positively consider permitting employees in the professional debt collection industry in the State of Washington to be able to continue their employment in a safe and healthy manner that addresses the concerns for many of our employees yet still provides safeguards for consumer data and oversight.”

Department of Licensing representatives say the meeting schedule is completely legal since it’s an emergency meeting. If approved, the rules would be in effect for 120 days, with the option to renew for another 120 days – or, up to eight months.

We’ll let you know the results of the vote tomorrow.

UPDATE: after our story aired, the meeting was canceled. See our update here.