During the pandemic, debt did not disappear. Meet the person whose work was to collect it.

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Among all consumer rights that lawmakers extended to Americans during the pandemic, debt relief was not one of them. While emergency laws allowed people to invest certain forms of debt, for example student loans and mortgage, in tolerance people whose debt took other forms – such as loans, cars and payday loans – had no legal protection. Debt collection is calm buzzed along for the pandemic caused mass deaths, disease, and unemployment.

Over the past year, not only have collection companies been operating, but they have also been operating in overseas markets to reduce the cost of labor markets as U.S. unemployment soared. BuzzFeed News spoke with a man who worked in Tijuana, Mexico, at the office of an American independent collection company. He was asked to indicate a pseudonym to protect his identity. Rick, who is 20 years old and a Mexican citizen, said that within 10 hours a day he entered an automated call system that tossed agents like him through hundreds of calls. He remembered trying to get money from people who simply did not have it, and even from one person who was being treated at the hospital for coronavirus. “I feel bad because I also have debts,” he said. Earlier this year, he resigned.

Here is Rick’s story, which has been edited for clarity and duration.

I was unemployed in 2020, since I recently moved here to Tijuana. I saw a job ad on Facebook and I had a few friends who worked there and said it was a customer service kit and collections. From this ad it seemed like it was a customer service job because you need to have customer service experience. Only when I started training did they say we were going to collect from people who called and tried to make payments. And when we had more experience, we called customers. I didn’t know.

I was a little stunned because they weren’t really up to it. I’ve worked in call centers before, but for customer service, not for collections. So I was kind of scared. But I needed a job. So I tried my best. We only had two weeks to learn everything in training. Since English is not the first language for some of us (my first language is Spanish), we needed to learn new words such as “deferral” and “balloon payment” and what a borrower and lender are. So it was fun and challenging at the same time.

I would go in at 6am and work 10 hours a day until 4pm. Because of COVID we sat two places apart. We always had to wear face masks. The team had about 90 agents.

We have a system that always dials numbers on its own throughout the day. The account number automatically pops up on the screen and we get access to the account. But dialing takes no more than 30 seconds, so we have one minute or less to see their information and how much they need. We just have to log in and start a conversation without knowing much about the account history. Sometimes the system just connected us, and people were already saying, “Hello? Hello?” I didn’t feel ready to take care of something so important, having so little time to prepare. This definitely needs to be improved as people are going through bad times.

Typically, the system dialed more than 200 calls a day, back to back. Most of them did not answer. I would talk to about 50 people a day. All customers were based in the US. These were mostly personal loans and car loans. If I needed to go to the bathroom or if I needed a break, I could set myself the function to stop taking calls, although the managers didn’t like it very much.

We really have no control over how many times we actually call a customer. We don’t have a system to know. Sometimes a person received 10 calls and they got worse by it. Sometimes we recovered with the same person on the same day and we had to pretend we didn’t know him or apologize.

One day my colleague called a man and she was really crazy. She said she received at least 20 calls that day and she was not going to pay what she finished. In fact she was in the hospital. She said she actually lost her husband to COVID, and now she is in the hospital with COVID, receiving oxygen, and in very poor condition. But really, someone else will probably try to contact her two hours and the day after, because, I repeat, we really couldn’t do much with the conversations.

There are a few indicators we needed to meet. But it wasn’t about how much money we raised. The quality assurance agent has given us a “customer service” rating. They were trained to evaluate our calls. We had our own scripts, and there were some scripts that we needed to say word for word, verbatim. So they appreciated the customer service we provided, mostly accordingly; if you missed only one word, for example, you will get zero. I was doing fine.

In our scenarios, you first go through a validation process. When the time came to recover, the consumer explained the situation, for example, due to COVID or due to non-work they could not pay. You would have to try at least twice to get paid. We may offer a deferral, for example, or perhaps a payment plan. On a normal day, more than half of the people I talked to couldn’t pay anything. Zero dollars.

I feel bad because I also have debts. I also have something to pay for. So trying to get them to pay was not easy for me. Even without a pandemic, it’s hard to ask for money. But it’s a more challenging task when you know that everyone is going through something that has affected a lot of people. I felt a little guilty when I asked people for money, but at the same time we had to keep working. We did not participate in attempts to help [the consumer]; we were just there to collect, and our supervisors reminded us of this throughout the experience.

I paid about 3,000 Mexican pesos [$150] per week. We are really close to San Diego, so usually the rental price here is higher. So I mean, I’m capable of surviving with that. It’s nothing compared to who went to college. But honestly, I know that since it’s an American company, they could pay more.

It’s mostly the work of people who are angry at you because you bother them and try to collect. Because of my experience working in call centers since I was 17, I got used to people shouting at me. But at the end of the day it’s hard; someone finds it hard to shout and say you’re bad. I left the collector job in February. I would like to do something else. I think the reason I’m still working at the call center is because I’m used to it. And it actually pays better than other jobs because they’re American companies. ●

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