If you’ve never had a run-in with a collection agent, consider yourself lucky. Either you’ve paid your bills on time, no one’s noticed that you haven’t, or your claims made it safely from the doctor to your insurance company. For those of us who have picked up the line and found a bill collector on the other end, it’s likely been an encounter we’d rather avoid. Collectors can be quite insistent, often compounding the shame of facing debt and being asked for money we don’t have.
Fifth in a series of five profiles of local collectors. Previous subjects include Jay Swanson (contemporary local art), Tom Arneson (Minnesota art since 1880), Scrapper Joe (scrap metal, etc), and the Walker Teen Arts Council (corruption).
What about the voice on the other line? What sorts of people decide to become bill collectors? And what’s the job like, calling people about their debts, day in and day out, being a nag by trade? At first, I thought of telemarketers. They’re just doing their job—which just happens to be irritatingly cold-calling you in the middle of dinner with the proposition of some unnecessary service. I find them annoying and am usually quite rude. That being said, it must be awful to be a telemarketer, or for that matter, a collector. Or so I assumed.
Sensationalist media (such as the horrendously vapid City Pages) and bill collection horror stories have given the collection industry an image synonymous with bullies and vultures. Images of determined payback enforcers come to mind, shaking their fists at the phone, shouting threats into the line. More often than not, we hear tales of harassment and persistence, miscommunication and lost payments.
After a fair amount of convincing that I wouldn’t turn this interview into yet another article on how rotten collection agents are, Sharon Hemmeke and Michelle Wallace of Phoenix Management Systems, Inc., a collection agency near Loring Park, agreed to meet with me. I was surprised to find women whose demeanor roughly resembles that of my aunt or the lady across the street who shares rhubarb and tomatoes from her garden. I asked Michelle if she loathes her job (I could not imagine how anyone would enjoy being a bill collector). She waited for a moment, and surprised me with her response, “It’s certainly not fun to come into work every day to be yelled at. But it can be very rewarding. Sometimes people are in tears because I’ve helped them.”
Michelle began working as a collector for a local hospital. It provided her with the flexible schedule and good pay she needed as a single mother. After several years at the hospital, she switched to Phoenix, where she has been for the last fifteen years. Part of Michelle’s job is customer service. “We’re people’s last key point between their insurance company and the hospital. We’re here to help.”
Any place that extends credit typically employs bill collectors. Most of the accounts Sharon and Michelle deal with are medical. A job that used to be done in-house at hospitals and doctors’ offices is now often outsourced to collection agencies such as Phoenix Management. Bill col- lectors go beyond just tracking down money to doing a lot of customer service and account resolution.
A resolved claim does not necessarily mean a paid bill. Often, claims (bills) are lost or mishandled between the hospital and the insurance company thus resulting in an unpaid bill. A collector, hired by the hospital, acts as a liaison between the debtor (i.e. you and me), and the account owner or lender (the hospital). By talking with debtors, collectors can help locate the problem and communicate to the insurance company that the claim may have never been filed by the hospital. In a case like this, the account is resolved, and the “debtor” no longer owes money.
Michelle spends a lot of time researching various loan and payment options. “A lot of the time people don’t pay their bills because they just can’t.” Having dealt with her own set of collectors, Michelle is sympathetic to the shame and frustration one feels when called upon to pay a bill they cannot afford to pay. In the event that a debtor refuses to pay, the bill collector can initiate a discontinuation of services. In more extreme cases, a collector may initiate repossession or submit a claim to an attorney for legal action—however, a collector does not have legal authority over a bill. Collectors are simply hired to retrieve money that would otherwise be lost to the account holder and added to the cost of services we all end up paying for.
“Some people are just irresponsible,” Sharon says. There are cases wherein debtors are simply impossible to contact, and sometimes they’re incredibly surly. On one occasion, a man called the agency office several times, daily, to shout obscenities into the phone at the collectors. “We can’t do anything about maniacs…”
Sharon and Michelle are among the first to say there are bad collection agencies—where the collector’s priority is money rather than resolution. Sharon started her own agency after having worked for a company similar to that of my imagination: boss looming overhead while mouthing, we want the money. “People just can’t work under those conditions,” she says. Sharon prides herself on running a different kind of business, geared as much towards customer service and account resolution as received payments.
Now, Sharon is the president of the Minnesota Association of Collectors. Minnesota agencies must take an oath—with regards to practice and procedure—to join. The association is highly respected within the industry for its standards. Collection agents are trained twice yearly on the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which was passed to regulate the industry. For example, collectors may only make calls between 8 AM and 9 PM. Though collectors may legally work on Sundays, Sharon would rather her employees—and debtors—have a break.
It’s easy to misconstrue what purpose a bill collector serves. As Michelle said, it’s a debtor’s last chance to settle the payment before the account gets brought to court by the creditor. Though one is not obligated to speak with collectors about the money owed, agents like Sharon and Michelle make it a little less painful.