On January 18, acting CFPB General Counsel Seth Frotman sent a letter to consumer advocates responding to their concerns that the Bureau’s November 2020 advisory opinion on earned wage access (EWA) products was being misused as justification for passage by proponents of a pending New Jersey bill that would permit third-party earned wage access companies to charge fees or permit “tips” for their products without having to abide by the state’s 30 percent usury cap. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau issued an advisory opinion on EWA products to address the uncertainty as to whether EWA providers that meet short-term liquidity needs that arise between paychecks “are offering or extending ‘credit’” under Regulation Z, which implements TILA. The advisory opinion stated that “‘a Covered EWA Program does not involve the offering or extension of ‘credit,’” and noted that the “totality of circumstances of a Covered EWA Program supports that these programs differ in kind from products the Bureau would generally consider to be credit.” In December 2020, the Bureau approved a compliance assistance sandbox application, which confirmed that a financial services company’s EWA program did not involve the offering or extension of “credit” as defined by section 1026.2(a)(14) of Regulation Z. The Bureau noted that various features often found in credit transactions were absent from the company’s program, and issued a two-year approval order, which provides the company a safe harbor from liability under TILA and Regulation Z, to the fullest extent permitted by section 130(f) as to any act done in good faith compliance with the order (covered by InfoBytes here).
In his letter, Frotman stated that “[i]t appears from your recounting of the legislative history that the advisory opinion has created confusion, as proponents of the bill seem to have misunderstood the scope of the opinion. The CFPB’s advisory opinion, by its terms, is limited to a narrow set of facts—as relevant here, earned wage products where no fee, voluntary or otherwise, is charged or collected.” Frotman acknowledged that the Bureau’s advisory opinion has also received pushback from consumer groups who sent a letter last year urging the Bureau to rescind the advisory opinion and sandbox approval and regulate fee-based EWA products as credit subject to TILA (covered by InfoBytes here). “Given these repeated reports of confusion caused by the advisory opinion due to its focus on a limited set of facts, I plan to recommend to the Director that the CFPB consider how to provide greater clarity on these types of issues,” Frotman wrote. He further stated that the advisory opinion did not purport to interpret whether the covered EWA products would be “credit” under other statutes other than TILA, including the CFPA or ECOA, or whether they would be considered credit under state law.