If there’s one thing that’s been made clear by the longest government shutdown in history, it’s that financial resilience in America is in dangerously short supply. People don’t tend to talk about their financial problems, but government workers who have just missed their first payday are taking to the airwaves and sharing details of their financial struggles – the missed rent payment, the empty gas tank, the stress and the shame. The Federal Reserve data that nearly half of all Americans couldn’t come up with $400 in an emergency is well known; the shutdown has now given the statistic a face.
It’s easy to forget that the single largest employer in the U.S. is the federal government. Including state and local governments, the public sector employs more than 21 million people. All employers have both a responsibility and a business imperative to provide their employees with more than just a paycheck. Because when their workers experience a financial shock, a paycheck is not a sufficient contingency plan. The lack of resilience that results from living paycheck to paycheck has a ripple effect, reducing both workplace productivity and demand, and creating downward pressure on the overall economy.
The death of the social contract between employers and workers has been decried for years, the result of an interpretation of capitalism that sacrifices everything else for the primacy of shareholder value. The crisis brought on by the federal government shutdown should be a wake-up call to renew that contract for the 21st century, with fintech as an important partner.
The furloughed federal workers are only the most visible example of what happens when families suffer an unexpected financial hit. Sixty percent of households in America had experienced a financial shock in the past 12 months, according research by Pew Charitable Trusts, ranging from a sudden loss of income, a new illness, an unexpected repair, a divorce, or a death in the family. A third of households experienced two or more.
Options for coping are limited. Data from the U.S. Financial Health Pulse shows that Americans are savings constrained, over-indebted and underinsured. Nearly half don’t have enough savings to cover three months of expenses, which isn’t surprising given that nearly the same percentage are spending more than or equal to their income. A quarter of them have subprime credit, while a third say they have more debt than they can manage. Of those who do have insurance, 37% aren’t confident it will cover them in an emergency.
Employers are a critical force for helping workers tackle these challenges and build greater financial resilience because they are providing a paycheck, and that means they have their workers’ attention around money. Employers also continue to be the hub for critical financial access and decision-making around health insurance and retirement savings. The tight labor market is driving a growing number of employers to consider the value of a focus on employee wellness, and benefits vendors are reporting that employer requests for proposals increasingly include financial wellness benefits as a must-have.
Enter fintech. The startup community has come to recognize the workplace as a high-value distribution channel that can help them scale their businesses faster than going direct to the consumer, while offering a broader range of business models in terms of who pays and how much. Competition from fintech firms has in turn pushed incumbent financial services and benefits providers to broaden their offerings beyond financial education.
While still early days, a growing number of employers are partnering with both fintech and fintech-inspired providers to experiment with a variety of new financial health services for their workforce: Tools to help employees get paid, pay bills, save money, manage student debt, access emergency credit, and plan for the future. The trick for employers is knowing where to focus. The best place to start is by talking to workers and understanding their challenges.
For example, Pitt Ohio, a transportation and logistics provider based in Pittsburgh, discovered through an employee survey that a high percentage of its workers did not have emergency savings, more than half paid regular interest on credit cards, and at least one-third were worried about their financial situations. Those worries led to more distractions – worried workers were 50% more likely to have a preventable accident.
In response, Pitt Ohio implemented a new set of benefits including free access to a financial counseling organization and an emergency savings account for employees. Employees can voluntarily make weekly payroll deductions that are automatically deposited into a savings account. If employees make payroll deposits for six months in a row, the company will contribute as well.