The workplace advantage is becoming increasingly popular: wage access apps that give workers a share of their earnings before pay day.
Why it matters
Applications help workers avoid borrowing costs until the day of disbursement or overdraft fees during the financial crisis, but they can still bite salaries.
Regulators are set up to clarify rules for services.
As gas prices rise, Target associate Adam Ryan found himself relying on workplace benefits that allow him to take advantage of a portion of his salary per hour before payday: the DailyPay app.
DailyPay delivers what its name promises. The app shows your accumulated earnings in the current payment period and asks how much you would like to send to your bank account. If you wait a day or more, the transaction is free. To receive cash immediately, you must pay a fee of $ 3.
Ryan usually can’t wait. He drives 30 minutes in both directions per shift, four times a week, to arrive at work in Christiansburg, Virginia. As gas prices hover close to all-time highs, early access to his wages allows Ryan to fill his tank and get to his shifts. Still, the DailyPay fee is a tribute to his overall compensation, he says.
“It’s not the full amount of what you’d get if you waited,” said Ryan, who is leading the union action in his shop. “But people can’t afford to wait.”
Ryan is not the only hourly worker who uses an application provided by his employer to pay salaries between payments. Mostly unregulated, these wage access apps have become more popular over the last decade as more and more employers have offered them to workers as a benefit. EWA applications are third-party services that connect to corporate payroll departments, giving employees access to a portion of their earned but not yet paid salaries. Large companies, including Walmart, McDonald’s and parent company Outback Steakhouse, offer them as benefits.
Some apps, like Even, charge a subscription each month. Others, such as the FlexWage app, charge a fee for each transaction. Some jobs cover fees for a certain number of advances, while others allow an unlimited number of transactions. And some apps, such as Instant Financial, charge neither the employer nor the employee, making money by putting an advance on a Visa debit card and taking part of the exchange fees that merchants pay for debit card transactions.
It seems that the popularity of these applications will grow. With inflation at its fastest pace in four decades, more than 14% of Americans live from paycheck to paycheck and struggle to pay their bills, according to the Lending Club, an equal credit company. Nearly a third of households did not have enough savings saved for emergencies to cover the unexpected cost of $ 400 in 2021.
According to Instant Financial estimates, about 8 million workers in the U.S. had access to EWA applications in 2020. The company considers potential customers more than 50 million Americans earning $ 60,000 or less a year.
Apps are an evolution of long-established patterns for the lowest paid Americans. For years, lenders offered instant access to cash in exchange for annual interest rates of close to 400%, and workers paid interest on credit cards and overdraft fees trying to keep up with expenses.
Consumer advocates acknowledge that EWA applications are an improvement over loans up to the payout date because they do not charge excessive fees or interest. Sohrab Kohli, who conducts financial policy research at the Aspen Institute, says the services could be useful for workers who have several unexpected expenses a year.
“But if they use it for every salary,” he said, “this is not a great solution to meet that need.”
The issue of credit
In 2020, the Bureau of Financial Protection of Consumers discovered that applications for access to earned wages are not credit services if they do not charge fees (although many do). Deputies called on the agency to reconsider the position, which it agreed to clarify.
Representatives of Instant Financial and DailyPay told CNET that their services do not constitute credit because advances are based on already earned salaries.
“We’re changing the way people get paid,” said Instant Financial CEO Tal Clark. “We’re trying to do it responsibly.”
Other services, such as Dave and Earnin, bypass employers’ systems and offer cash advances based on information about when a client is at work or the flow of money in a person’s bank accounts. They also charge fees for current transfers and sometimes ask for “tips”, which is a voluntary amount. Earnin says it’s not a form of credit.
“If you give people their earnings when they earn, I don’t know why you would call it a loan,” said Ram Palaniappan, CEO and founder of Earnin. Proponents argue that services offer money in anticipation of later repayment, which they say is the definition of a loan. However, says Palaniappan, the company is open to regulation in order to install “protective fences” on the industry.
Producer Earnina Activehours has settled a class action lawsuit in 2021 over allegations that its advertising has misled customers by claiming the service will reduce overdraft fees. Prosecutors claimed the banks charged them an overdraft when Earnin tried to withdraw funds from their accounts before the funds became available. Palaniappan said clients can choose when to pay out the money, and can also choose to direct their salary through Earnin, who makes the payment to customers ’accounts after deducting any amount of any advance.
Dave, another application that offers advances directly to consumers, in partnership with the bank provides advance services similar to overdrafts. The bank is regulated by the Office of the Currency Controller, a department of the US Treasury that regulates national banks.
Dave charges customers a fee for receiving funds currently overpaid on a debit card issued by the company. People can also request that the money be sent for free to an external bank account, which usually takes one to three days. Dave asks for voluntary tips on advances, and also earns from exchange fees when customers use their Dave debit cards.
Although structured as an overdraft fee, Dave CEO Jason Wilk says the company keeps costs much lower for customers. “It’s ten times better and friendlier than a traditional overrun,” he said.
The company is facing a lawsuit for allegedly violating the data of a third party service that processed data on Dave’s customers. Wilk declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuit.
Not even the app Walmart offers its employees has responded to requests for comment. Outback’s parent Bloomin ‘Brands declined to comment, and McDonald’s accepted the request for comment, but did not give it.
Many workers believe that access to salaries through applications is an advantage.
Meagan Ulberg, who worked at Walmart in Sacramento until May, signed up for the Even after a disagreement over when she would receive her salary. A colleague from work told her about the Even app, which gave her access to some of her earnings on the spot, allowing her to do some chores. Ulberg says she was so grateful that she bought her colleague a $ 10 gift card to thank her.
The Even app also helped Ulberg, whose salary varied based on hours and overtime, track his earnings in real time.
“It makes me aware of what my salary is doing,” Ulberg said.
Walmart, which has been offering cash advances through the Even since 2017, says it provides an app that helps workers budget and overcome financial difficulties.
“Apart from budget planning and savings, access to earned salaries is another feature available through Even that helps associates manage responsibly in unexpected expenses,” Walmart spokesman Josh Havens said in a statement. “This app has proven to be extremely popular with our contributors and continues to be one of the most popular benefits since it was introduced.”
Cash advances or higher salaries
Critics of EWA apps say the benefits of paper outweigh a deeper problem: salaries are too low. According to the Financial Health Network, the increase in workers’ salaries was realized duringinflation is almost gone.
The apps became popular just as the wave of work organization crashed on the retail and food industries. Starbucks, REI, Target storeseveryone is facing union pressure, and higher wages are a key requirement.
Ryan is in favor of union elections at his Target store and says he wants a pay raise for his fellow associates. In his shop, he says he saw a salary increase in steps of 8 to 30 cents. Inflation has also significantly reduced the value of those price hikes, he says.
Target said it will start offering the app in 2020 and confirmed that workers pay compensation if they want to access the funds on the same day, but declined to comment further.
Trapped in a cycle
Earnings of workers, whether from low wages or limited working hours, are precisely the reason why EWA applications can jeopardize their finances, says Yasmin Farahi, senior policy advisor at the Center for Responsible Credit. “On those margins,” she said, “even what looks like a low fee can be problematic.”
A study by the Financial Health Network shows that workers who use EWA apps tend to do so multiple times in consecutive payment periods, illustrating that they do not make up for the cash shortfall in the payout period after the advance payment.
DailyPay’s director of innovation and marketing, Jeanniey Walden, said the company sees a “curved” trend in which workers take advances for multiple salaries in a row, but eventually switch to saving their salaries after digging out of a lack of cash. She acknowledges that wage access applications cannot overcome external forces, such as historical inflation.
“I don’t know if we are able to solve it as much as we are able to help people get through,” she said.
Lauren Saunders, assistant director of the National Center for Consumer Rights, said it was important to remember that early access to cash does not mean workers earn more money.
“What it really shows is that there are a lot of people struggling from paycheck to paycheck,” Saunders said, “at the end of the day, lending won’t solve that.”