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Some days, the calls started coming in at 6:30 in the morning, and Elisha Callahand says her phone often kept ringing well into the evening.
The single mom from Ogden knew that when she answered, the payday lenders at the other end would demand money she didn’t have. That they wouldn’t listen when she tried to negotiate lower payments or to explain that giving them what they wanted would leave her without grocery money.
“They talk to you like you’re less than human,” she said.
Callahand always recognized that she needed to pay back the high-interest loan she took out a couple of years ago, as she recalls, for some car repairs. But it was the early days of the pandemic, and the food service distributor where she worked had halved her hours after the coronavirus stalled much of its business.
Between the ballooning interest on the payday loan and a few other debts, Callahand felt trapped in a financial pit with no way to crawl out. She found herself bursting into tears for no apparent reason, she said, and suicidal thoughts started creeping into her mind.
At the time, she had no idea the payday lender bearing down on her — by suing her and fighting to garnish her already diminished wages — was doing business with an assist from a federal COVID-19 bailout.
Months later, Callahand said she’s in a much better place. She’s declared bankruptcy to clear some of her debts, gotten a new job at Home Depot and expects that for the first time in ages, she’ll be able to save a bit of her next paycheck.
Still, reflecting on last year’s hardships, it makes her furious to think that the parent company for her lender, 1st Choice Money Center, reaped $480,000 in federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding in 2020. The company didn’t respond to interview requests.
“It’s insulting to know they got that and they got help, but they weren’t willing to help us,” she said. “Instead of them giving a little bit of leeway and working with human beings, it was basically like, ‘That’s not my problem.’”
In theory, federal PPP bailouts were supposed to prop up small businesses and their workers, keeping restaurants alive while the pandemic was emptying out their dining rooms and stores afloat even though their customers had vanished.
But a review by The Salt Lake Tribune shows that dozens of in-state collection agencies and high-interest lenders also captured millions — even though some of them were making pandemic survival more difficult for the very people the PPP loans were meant to help. Court records show that even through some of the worst periods of 2020, some lenders and debt collectors continued to take Utahns to court and garnish the wages of the essential and hourly workers who were bearing the brunt of the pandemic-induced turmoil.
Among the lending companies that are members of the Utah Consumer…