Shutterstock; Rachel Mendelson/Insider
- An employee at student-loan company Nelnet told Insider that servicing loans is an “awful business.”
- They found the emotional burnout from spending hours fielding calls from struggling borrowers to be severe.
- “It’s normal to take time after some calls to literally cry,” the employee said.
Student-loan company workers might hate the industry just as much as the millions of borrowers dealing with crushing debt.
Nelnet, equipped with nearly 8,000 full-time employees that service 16.8 million borrowers, is one of the largest loan servicers in the country, but some of its employees aren’t thrilled with its operations. After Insider was first to report the company was laying off 150 of its employees, citing lack of work caused by the student-loan payment pause, Jo — a current Nelnet employee using a pseudonym for privacy — told Insider they would spend eight hours a day listening to calls from borrowers whose lives are crumbling under debt they can’t pay off.
“Student loans is an awful business,” Jo said. “I hate that I work in it, but you have to do things you don’t like when you need to make money.”
Jo currently works in Firstmark Services, which is a private student loan division of Nelnet. But before then, Jo was in federal servicing and said the “emotional burnout” is so extreme for some workers that they often become detached if they are in the position long enough, making it difficult to sympathize with the student-loan borrower on the other end of the phone.
But other workers experience the opposite after listening to call after call on the debilitating effect student debt can have on people. For example, Jo said employees are provided with a checklist of prompts they must follow when a customer calls in with repayment concerns, and no matter how severe the situation, the most a worker can do is inform the borrower of payment plans and thank them for their feedback.
“It’s normal to take time after some calls to literally cry,” Jo said, adding that someone in their department had to take time off for their mental health “because they were genuinely putting their heart into every single call they were getting.”
Nelnet spokesperson Ben Kiser told Insider that “company culture is a relentless focus throughout Nelnet.”
“Living our core values of providing superior customer experiences and creating an awesome work environment requires constant feedback and a commitment to make positive change with these insights,” Kiser said. “There is always more that we can do to get better in both areas – and we’re dedicated to consistent pursuit of improvement for our team and the millions of people we serve.”
Jo agrees that more needs to be done.
“People steadily have advocated that we need mental health days specifically separate from earned time off,” Jo said. “We have been begging for it and there’s clearly time for it. The company clearly makes enough money to offer it. It’s just, that is not a priority or a value for them.”
‘It’s just another corporation that underpays its employees and really cares more about making a profit’
Although Jo’s job is entirely customer-focused, she said Nelnet did not prepare them for the mental toll it could take.
“There’s always the generic, ‘if you need to take a minute, feel free to take a minute, but don’t take too long because you still have stuff to do,'” Jo said.
According to Nelnet, the company offers an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), in which workers can get five free counseling sessions and other types of mental health resources. But once an employee exhausts those options, Jo said there isn’t much left Nelnet has to offer, meaning workers will either have to pay for additional counseling or continue working without it.
“What do people do when the five therapy sessions are over… but they can’t afford to keep seeing a therapist because their health insurance doesn’t cover it?” Jo said. They recalled an email from an employee within their department who left a comment on a customer email saying, “I can’t fucking do this anymore,” exemplifying how severe burnout in the industry can be.
Kiser told Insider that Nelnet should be “an employer of choice where associates are offered robust benefits in a caring environment in which they can develop and thrive.”
“As a part of the ongoing improvement process, Nelnet regularly seeks feedback from our associates through anonymous, third-party administered Associate Engagement Surveys and townhall meetings with all loan servicing call center and back-office associates,” Kiser said. “These feedback opportunities provide thousands of comments about our culture, workplace, and service from which we can get better.”
Job security, or the lack thereof, can also add to the mental toll. Insider previously reported that following an unexpected round of layoffs, some Nelnet workers fear they might be the next one to be let go, even after being assured by the company all job cuts have already been made.
Jo makes $17 an hour, and a laid-off Nelnet employee using the name Anne as a pseudonym told Insider raises are based on a scorecard system that goes up to 5. Achieving “100% effectiveness” gets an employee a score of 3, which merits a $100 quarterly bonus. Employees can earn a free t-shirt for dealing with backlog or high call volume.
Nelnet did not comment on the process for receiving a raise, but told Insider the company’s headquarters “was recognized as the second-best place to work in Lincoln, Nebraska. Nelnet has also been recognized as a best place to work in Colorado and in Madison, Wisconsin, as well as one of America’s Best Employers for Diversity and Women, respectively.”
“They’re very much the classic case of a company who, when you start working for them, you’re told all these great and awesome things and you really do genuinely believe that you’re helping and making a difference,” Jo said. “And the longer you’re there, the more you see that it’s just another corporation that underpays its employees and really cares more about making a profit than helping the customer to the best of their abilities.”
Got tips? Reach out to Ayelet Sheffey at [email protected]