By PETE LEVINE, AFSCME
Additional reporting by Diane S. Williams
Laura Morand owed $305,000 in student loans and didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.
“I figured I’d be paying through the nose till the day I died,” said Morand, President of Local 2627, which represents New York City’s electronic data processing personnel. Short of winning the lottery or an inheritance — neither of which she expected — Morand’s student loans were going to hobble her for the rest of her life.
Morand wanted a better life for her children, to get them out of “the projects of South Bronx and off public assistance.” Education was the way to do that.
“As a mother of four, I have always seen education as the way to create a better life for my children and myself,” Morand said. “But after earning a second degree and borrowing for my children’s education, I was $305,000 in debt.”
In 1992, she enrolled in an associate’s degree program at Pace University in accounting and information systems but wound up earning her bachelor’s degree in under four years. She said, “It wasn’t easy. Money was always tight and between the coursework and my kids, there was never enough time.”
After college, many of Morand’s classmates went to work in the private sector. The pay for IT professionals was lucrative — as much as $200,000-$300,000 a year or more.
“I could have pursued a lucrative private sector career,” she said. “Instead, I chose to serve my community as an IT professional with the New York City Fire Department.”
Morand’s career in public service helped her connect to her community, and provided job security, benefits, and a pension. Her classmates were puzzled by her decision, but Morand knew it was the right path for her.
Pursuing a dream, hobbled by debt
She landed an IT job with the New York State Worker’s Compensation Board out of college. There, as she’s done in every job where she’s had the opportunity, she joined her union.
“The first thing I do is sign my union card,” said Morand. “If it wasn’t for the labor union movement, we wouldn’t have the middle class. If it wasn’t for unions, we wouldn’t have the benefits we enjoy. I’ve always wanted to make sure those benefits weren’t eroded.”
In 1999, Morand went back to school for her master’s degree in information system engineering at NYU-Polytechnic School of Engineering, which led her to a job with the FDNY and she joined DC 37 Local 2627.
At FDNY headquarters, Morand handles everything from networking to database administration to business analysis to project management and much more. And she feels honored to work for FDNY. “You’re helping to save the lives and property of the citizens of New York,” she said.
While Morand had begun to achieve the American dream — she was earning a decent salary, she’d moved out of the projects, had another child, and even bought a home — she remained plagued by student loans she’d accumulated for her and her kids’ educations.
“When I was taking loans out, I saw it as a means for providing for my children. But it was very difficult to repay,” said Morand. “I figured I’d be paying for the rest of my life.”
Thanks to DC 37, Morand was able to receive free legal advice at the MELS Student Debt Forgiveness workshop. With help from MELS attorney Miranda Pacheco (retired), Morand consolidated her $1,700 monthly student loan payment into one that qualified for an income-based federal student loan, which she verifies by submitting her yearly her tax return. It cut her monthly payment in half.
“The federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, PSLF, is a very hot topic right now,” said Joseph Davidson, a MELS Supervising Attorney who presents the union’s student debt webinars. “But in truth it is only one area in which MELS assists members with student debt management.”
Established in 2007, the PSLF program encouraged graduates to pursue jobs in public service. After working full time at a qualified job in the public sector and making 120 loan payments, the borrower’s loans would be forgiven.
A path out
Last year, Morand caught wind of an important change to the PSLF program — a change that AFSCME fought for.
President Joe Biden issued a temporary waiver (which runs until Oct. 31, 2022) that counts all payments on federal student loans toward the PSLF 120 payment requirement, regardless of loan program or repayment plan. Previously, the PSLF had been mired in problems, with only a tiny fraction of borrowers ever seeing loan forgiveness.
Morand looked into the waiver.
“When I logged into Fedloans, my loan servicer, I saw that there was a one-year window, from October 2021 to October 2022, where you can apply for forgiveness. I applied right away. I took a chance, because I knew I’d been making regular payments for more than 10 years,” said Morand.
Around the second week in January, Morand received an urgent notification through her loan servicer.
“They posted a letter to my account. I got an email from Fedloans saying that action is needed,” said Morand. “I log in and there’s a new letter, right there that says ‘Congratulations.’ Two of my loans were forgiven. I burst into tears and showed my husband.”
Nearly $200,000 in loans had been wiped away. Morand is among the 70,000 borrowers whom the waiver has helped.
Morand said, “I sacrificed a lot to reduce my debt, but after years of being locked into a never-ending cycle of student loan payments, I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel until now.”
“I’m just so grateful,” she said, “for the waiver, for the work my union has done to make it happen and for the legal assistance MELS provided to help me navigate the process.
“Ten years ago, it was very difficult. When I was raising my kids, I didn’t see an end to the debt – it was always accruing interest,” said Morand. “Now, with a large portion of our student debt forgiven, we’re able to have more freedom and be comfortable. All those years of suffering seem to be paying off. I feel almost 200,000 pounds lighter.”
For help with PSLF or other legal concerns, members can call MELS at 212. 815.1111.