I’ve Always Been the Haggler in My Family. During the Pandemic, It Saved Us.
On a sticky Sunday last August in Lawrenceville, Georgia, I stood outside Publix having a low-dollar, high-stakes negotiation with a sweet-voiced lady from Bank of America.
The day before, I had been driving with my 24-year-old daughter, Jesse, whom I’d convinced to quarantine with us when the pandemic started. Since I’m a freelance reporter and she’s a photographer, living together also made it easier for us to work together. That Saturday we were working on only my second assignment during the pandemic, interviewing immigrant farmworkers in southern Georgia about coping with Covid-19. We used a lot of gas. We ate tacos in a tiendita we stumbled upon in the middle of farm country. It felt good to be working again, but I also realized, after getting back into the car to drive back to the Atlanta metro area, that I had just spent a couple hours talking to people without masks.
All this was on my mind the next morning, before my weekly shopping trip to Publix. And then I discovered that the gas and tacos and drinks had pushed our bank account into the red. Five purchases totaling less than $100 had triggered $175 in overdraft fees.
So there I was, laying it on for customer service at Bank of America. I told the agent about my wife’s art studio closing its doors the previous March. Nobody wanted to take group painting lessons with Covid raging, and online classes had brought in 70 percent less income. I explained I’d just gotten back from only my second assignment in months. I asked her if she thought the CEO of Bank of America had earned any less during the pandemic. “Hmmh,” she replied. And I repeated something I had seen on Twitter: banks were earning billions on fees while millions were out of work. I finished my monologue with a plea: “I’m about to buy food for the week for my family. Please don’t dig a deeper hole for us, and waive as many of those fees as you can.”
“Good news,” she announced after putting me on hold. “We can reverse all $175 in fees.” I thanked her profusely. She wished me and my family well, and assured me things would get better. I went through the Publix doors, feeling as if I had just won a game in the dying seconds. I wanted to cry.
I’ve always played this role in my household—the one who argues against late fees, or overdraft fees, or the-free-trial-is-over fees. But I’ve had to take the role of negotiator more often, with more at stake, in the last year and a half. It’s been draining, an ongoing feeling of leaning against a leaking wall with a tsunami on the other side.
This has included calls and emails to the corporate landlord that owns the house we rented for $1,400 a month—plus $35 for Bella, our 17-pound Jack Russell Terrier. I called my landlord’s representative on March 23 of last year to relate many of the same facts I had explained to the bank, including that point I can never resist mentioning: the CEOs are always alright. (In fact, we now know that median pay for CEOs at the nation’s largest companies climbed nearly $1 million during 2020, reaching $13.7 million a year.) The representative assured me that many families living in the 31,000 properties owned by the company were also struggling, and that I would soon be hearing about a “response to the crisis.”
I emailed her on April 3 to let her know no one had shared news of their response yet. The next communication from the company—which I’m not naming to avoid problems—was on April 15, when a curt “courtesy” email reminded me that we hadn’t paid rent for the month, and that “[t]he late fee has automatically been reversed as a courtesy for all residents this month.”
I again called the landlord, livid. I started by detailing my previous calls and emails, and pointed out they shouldn’t use the word “courtesy” under the circumstances. I’m sure I sounded unhinged. I couldn’t control myself. The landlord’s collections agent apologized and said it was an email written in another department. He could see we were “hardworking” and could use a hand. He wound up brokering a deal with some other department wherein they’d use our security deposit of $2,100 over the next two months to help cover the rent, and then we’d have to pay them back $210 each month for 10 months. Of course, that approach didn’t take into account how long Covid would continue decimating our income. As it turned out, we ultimately had to vacate our home.
During this pandemic, both of my children graduated: Dylan, my 19-year-old, from high school, and Jesse from Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Like millions of families, by April or so of last year we came to accept that we wouldn’t be able to share any joy at graduation ceremonies with our extended family in Georgia. But then both schools contacted me to say each of them wouldn’t even be getting official diplomas due to money they said we owed—$1,400 for tuition in Jesse’s case, and in Dylan’s, it was the price of two textbooks. Dylan swore he hadn’t lost them. I called the principal, we went back and forth, and I wound up ordering both textbooks used for a total of $35. Dylan went and picked up his diploma.
The email from SCAD particularly enraged me. The only way we got Jesse through her first three years at the school, which cost more than a hundred thousand dollars, was with federal and state scholarships along with grants shepherded by a dean who saw Jesse’s promise. (She was one of the few photographers to sell her work to private collectors at the school’s annual student exhibition in each of her first two years, and her photos appeared in publications like The Atlantic and The Guardian and in Atlanta-area exhibitions.) I once told that dean something I knew from my reporting on higher-ed in the United States: if schools like SCAD help students graduate rather than forcing them to drop out for financial reasons, they not only earn the federal and state aid that comes with the student, but often gain a grateful alumnus who then is more likely to donate to the institution later. The dean agreed, and assured us the school would always “cover” whatever shortfall was left after all the outside funds were added up. “You’ll never have to worry,” he promised.
Within months, he was fired. As a result, the last year-plus of Jesse’s education would now cost us a lot more. “You can always take out student loans,” we were advised by the bursar, and we did. So I found myself on the phone again, arguing about how, after all that, and the hundreds of thousands the school had taken in, they were now trying to squeeze $1,400 from us, a family reeling from a loss in income and unable to celebrate with aunties, nieces, nephews, and grandma, all due to a global pandemic. And yes, I wondered aloud, how was the school’s president doing? The new dean agreed to erase the debt and mail Jesse’s diploma.
There’s a variation on my role as family wheedler where I try to avoid paying for things in the first place, if possible. For instance, I log onto our health-insurance company’s website weekly to open each of our account pages, enter an online wellness program, play videos about the benefits of taking walks or other healthy activities, fill out forms for each of us, gain points for doing so and convert those points to dollars through a complicated format. Then I call the company and argue about how many points or dollars I think the program has shortchanged me, all to use as much of those dollars as possible on paying for our monthly premium, which was about $450 last year. It’s exhausting.
As for our house, repaying the $2,100 security deposit that was put toward our rent took until April 1—the last month of our lease. It took this long because the corporation neglected to charge us the $210 for one or two months. I, of course, said nothing about the oversight. In mid-March, the landlord informed us they wouldn’t be renewing. I made another series of calls. First, I wanted someone to explain why. The answer: the landlord never answers this question on advice of attorneys. Then, seeing how overheated the metro Atlanta rental market had become, I pleaded with them to be flexible if finding a place proved difficult.
This time, my negotiation tactics failed. The answer was no. We spent April watching rental prices on the same houses rise every week. We arrived at houses to find other families lined up. Sometimes, we opened the lockboxes that allowed people to let themselves in to view houses for rent and found the keys missing. People were stealing keys, possibly to keep others from seeing houses while they applied to rent them. Finally, two days before we had to vacate, we signed a contract on a new rental.
During this pandemic, I also did something for the first time, after hearing others talk about it on dozens of occasions in my decades as a reporter: I contacted my congressional representative for help with a government program. I applied for unemployment as a freelancer, an option supposedly available to me after federal Covid relief funds came to Georgia. After getting rejected for no apparent reason, I tried calling the state labor department dozens of times and got no answer. I contacted my representative. One of their aides started emailing a state employee. The state employee eventually replied, telling me to do things I had already tried. I wrote her back in ALL CAPS, telling her I had already done that. This time, my efforts went nowhere. I gave up. I then turned my attention to figuring out the Payroll Protection Plan application for my wife at the art studio; we eventually received those funds.
Writing all this, I’m aware that research has shown race and gender biases can extend to customer service based on the caller’s name, or voice, or both. When I’m wheedling, I may well benefit from the other person assuming I’m white, which I am. I should also mention that I’m not necessarily lauded as a hero in my own household—my 19-year-old has told me more than once I should “use a different tone” on the calls I’ve described. Seeing how upset I sometimes get, he says he is worried for my health. I’m also aware there are millions more going through harder times than I have during Covid—including, of course, unimaginable grief from the loss of loved ones. I’m not claiming any special status. This is just the story of how a particular trait of mine has sometimes served my family during this terrible crisis, how I’ve had to use it more often, and what that might say about the economic system we’re all living in.
Timothy Pratt has reported for 25-plus years on several continents, in English and Spanish, with work in The New York Times, The Economist, AP, Reuters, The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Times, and others.
Co-published with Esquire.