Federal Personnel:

Garnishments of Wages for Commercial and Domestic Debts

GGD-88-49FS: Published: Feb 17, 1988. Publicly Released: Mar 15, 1988.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information regarding the: (1) extent to which federal agencies honor and deny orders to garnish civilian employees' wages; and (2) cost of processing garnishment orders.

GAO found that: (1) in general, the doctrine of sovereign immunity protected federal civilian employees and Armed Forces members from wage garnishment for commercial debt; (2) the federal government waived its sovereign immunity regarding domestic debts, allowing wage garnishment for child support or alimony payments; and (3) general waivers of sovereign immunity applied to some government agencies, such as the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. GAO also found that: (1) of the federal agencies that did not honor garnishment orders for commercial debt, 4 could not recollect receiving any garnishment orders, 8 estimated that they denied 1 to 207 garnishment orders annually, and 4 were unable to estimate how many orders they had denied; and (2) Department of Defense components were unable to provide data because of their decentralized personnel systems. In addition, GAO found that: (1) each agency honored court orders for domestic debt garnishments; (2) 15 of 21 agencies reported that employees with such garnishments accounted for 1 percent or less of the agency's total work force; (3) the agencies did not maintain data on the costs of processing garnishment orders, although USPS estimated that its employees spent at least 3 hours processing each order; (4) differing state laws governing commercial debt garnishments precluded standardized processing of such orders; and (5) federal regulations imposed certain conditions which made domestic debt garnishments easier and more uniform to process.

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