The direct effects of the COVID-19 pandemic range from uncomfortable to devastating—mentally, physically, socially and financially. While preventing the spread of the coronavirus should be everyone’s top priority right now, policymakers must also take action to protect Americans from the pandemic’s potential long-term effects. One such effect is the damage it could cause to millions of consumers’ credit scores.

Many of my friends just lost their jobs. Restaurant workers, retail employees, those in the gig economy and many who are self-employed have taken a serious hit in cut hours or losing their jobs completely, with no definitive answer to when they can expect to work normal hours again. Many will struggle to make credit card, student loan, utility or other bill payments on time, if at all.

In the meantime, credit reporting agencies will continue to keep records of missed payments and growing debt.

While some of us will be OK, many people were already living paycheck to paycheck. A bad credit score isn’t the first thing on their minds, but that could very well be part of the financial fallout of this crisis. A low credit score impacts more than just access to credit. It can affect someone’s ability to find work, housing or affordable loans. With negative reporting during a crisis like this, financial struggles in the next few months could lead to financial stress for years to come.

As things stand, American consumers now face this risk, through no fault of their own. Our financial system is on autopilot when it comes to the adverse financial ramifications of missed payments: Under the current system, the credit reporting bureaus treat any delinquencies caused by pandemic-related loss of income the same as those resulting from poor financial management.

Tens of millions of Americans’ lives have already been upended by the coronavirus. Millions of their credit reports will enter a downward spiral without action from Congress. Impaired credit histories will haunt them for years.

That is why Wisconsin’s U.S. senators and representatives should protect consumers from negative credit reporting during the pandemic. Congress should suspend negative credit reporting for 120 days, giving Wisconsinites a chance to make it back on their feet without long-term financial damage.

Sabrina Clevenger is a consumer fellow with WISPIRG, a Madison-based public interest research group.

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