IRS Yields to Credit Union CEO Championing Member
One blazing hot day in the fall of 2013, 69-year-old Pamela Chappell, a retired supermarket employee, sat in her car in the parking lot of her Sacramento, Calif., credit union and cried.
The last few years had been rough. A medical condition called lymphedema made her legs swell and required regular wrapping and expensive medication.
Her fixed income, drawn from a Social Security check and even smaller pension from the labor union she joined as an employee, barely covered the cost of her medication and her other living expenses.
Employees of the local utility told her the day before she had not qualified for a program to help low income customers pay their electric bills. And, in that day's mail, a letter arrived from the IRS notifying her it planned to take all her savings, $8,000, from her savings account to cover back taxes. Sometimes, she said later, she wondered whether she could keep going.
“It was a pretty low point,” Chappell said, adding she hadn't known why she went to the credit union except to let them know about the letter and to see if she might have had more money in her account than she had remembered.
But sitting in the hot car, rereading the letter and remembering her attempt to call the IRS about it, only made her cry harder and feel more desperate.
“I was on the phone with some woman who was just a horrible, mean person,” Chappell recalled. “All she would say is I owed it and had to pay it and they were going to take it,” she said. “And when I started to cry, she said if I didn't stop crying, she was going to hang up on me!”
And then she did, Chappell said, leaving her with the debt.
Although she didn't know it, Chappell was already at a place where she could get some help.
The $56 million, 7,000-member Big Valley Federal Credit Union had started in 1953 with employees of the Safeway supermarket chain as its primary field of membership but has grown since, according to CEO Linda Sweet.
That longtime sponsor relationship meant Big Valley had a significant number of retired members.
Chappell, for example, had belonged to Big Valley for 40 years, Sweet said.
And that long history meant credit union employees recognized her car and realized something was wrong.
“She was definitely known,” Sweet said, “and when she didn't come in on her own on such a hot day, one of the staff went out to make sure she was alright.”
Finding Chappell alone and distraught in the car, clutching the IRS letter, the staffer urged Chappell to come into the air conditioned credit union and show Sweet the letter.
“I didn't know if she could help, but I trust Linda and I didn't know where else to turn,” Chappell said. “I felt like I was at the end of my options.”
Sweet took the letter and made sure it was authentic. It did, in fact, order Big Valley to turn over Chappell's funds to the federal government.
While Chappell cooled off in her air conditioned office, Sweet contemplated what she could do.
“I wasn't sure we could do anything,” Sweet said. “But I felt like we had to try. This clearly made no sense. Pamela is a disabled, retired person on a fixed income; there had to be some other way to approach this problem.”
Sweet concluded that as the CEO of the credit union being ordered to transmit the funds would give her some standing on the matter, so she began dialing and waiting on hold. Once they reached an IRS customer service agent, Chappell identified herself and gave permission for Sweet to speak on her behalf while Chappell listened over the speakerphone.
“I was right, being the CEO of the credit union that would have to send the funds did make it easier to get them to listen to me,” Sweet said. She simply laid out the facts about Pamela's life: She was disabled, she lived on a very fixed income, she had not meant to avoid paying taxes and that “if anyone needed and deserved to be able to repay her debt on a repayment plan, it was Pamela.”
Happily, the agent agreed, and gave Sweet a number that would remove the requirement to send the funds
The agent then took a small payment from Chappell, made arrangements for her to start a payment plan and also a plan to file her missing back taxes, an arrangement that continues today, Chappell said.
Sweet said she had been glad to help Chappell, but her story only highlighted the plight of elderly and retired people who may be among the most underserved populations in the U.S.
For example, Sweet remained confident that Chappell had never meant to not file her taxes during the years she both cared for her elderly mother in her home as well as managed her own illness.
“Pamela cared for her mother in her home for some years until she died,” Sweet said, “at the same time she needed to contend with her own health issues. I think she was just overwhelmed.”
So often financial institutions, including credit unions, tend to believe that just because a person is older or retired that their need for someone to offer them financial services goes away, Sweet said.
“But in reality, they still need financial services. Maybe different ones, but we can't just assume they have no needs now that they are older,” she said.