WASHINGTON Q&A: Don’t refund garnished wages already collected
COVID-19Wage and Hour
Question: Before Governor Inslee’s order temporarily halting garnishments for consumer debt took effect on April 14, 2020, we withheld wages and set the money aside to send to the creditor once the 60-day garnishment period ended. Should we refund that money to our employee? Or should we hold on to it and send it to the creditor when we get the Judgment on Answer and Order to Pay like we normally would?
Answer: The state of Washington hasn’t yet provided a clear answer (but taking the steps described below offers the safest approach). In our previous article announcing the governor’s order, we recommended returning any withheld wages in your possession to the employee. While the intent of the governor’s order is to reduce economic hardship on workers impacted by COVID-19 (coronavirus), it merely suspends certain garnishment statutes without specifically explaining how employers should comply. Neither the Governor’s office nor any state agency has so far released guidance. While it’s clear the order prevents any wage withholding for consumer debt garnishments during the period covered by the governor’s order, it’s not clear what happens to wages you withheld before April 14, 2020.
Some creditor attorneys contend the money you withheld prior to April 14 should be sent to the creditor after the moratorium ends (11:59 p.m. on May 14, unless extended). Other attorneys contend the money should be returned to the employee, similar to a bankruptcy stay on wage withholding, which immediately stops most collection efforts by creditors. We’ve already seen one order (issued by a creditor’s attorney and accepted by a court) which partially resolved the dilemma by directing the employer to hold onto the wages it withheld before April 14, return any wages withheld on or after that date to the worker, and await further instructions.
Given the current uncertainty in interpreting the governor’s order, the safest practice is to contact whoever issued the writ of garnishment and ask for written instructions. If a judge or court clerk or commissioner issued the garnishment (instead of the creditor’s attorney), it may be helpful to let the creditor know that you're seeking guidance. Here’s sample language:
“You served a writ of garnishment on [company name] for [name of worker] that we received on [date]. In compliance with Proclamation 20-49, we will suspend withholding from April 14 through May 14, 2020. Please send instructions for what we should do with any funds withheld prior to April 14. Please respond in writing within 20 days of the date of this letter. If the writ is still valid when the moratorium ends, we will resume withholding until it expires. Please send us instructions at [address].”
Remember that only garnishments for consumer debt are covered by the proclamation. Don’t stop withholding for other types of orders such as child support orders, tax levies or administrative wage garnishments.