David Baga became CEO of Oakland, California-based earned wage access company Even in March. Prior to taking that role, he had been chief operating officer of investment firm Lightspeed Venture Partners and chief business officer at the ride-hailing company Lyft.
If there was any silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that it brought into focus the important role frontline workers play in our society. Formerly overlooked jobs, from delivery people to restaurant workers to those that stock and bag groceries suddenly became heroes, put in a difficult position of risking their health to keep our world turning.
As these workers showed everyone how essential they truly are, the pandemic also exposed how much we as a society are failing those on the front lines. Now, as variants continue to arise, hourly workers are (understandably) reluctant to rejoin an economy that has failed them at nearly every turn.
We need to do better for hourly workers. And in order to do better, we need to really understand the problems they’re facing.
The Real Problem Facing Hourly Workers
A large percentage of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. This economic precarity means having a zeroed-out bank account, standing in a parking lot, and needing to make a choice between buying the diapers and food you drove to pick up or filling up a gas tank with enough fuel to get to work the next day.
Oftentimes these financial catch-22’s force Americans to dig an even deeper economic hole. In order to simply meet these basic needs, millions will pay bills late, accrue overdraft fees on their accounts or rely on high-interest credit—if they’re even able to get a loan with a poor credit history.
In these dire circumstances, the working poor will turn to payday loans or their tech-enabled alternatives. While derided, payday loans provide an important service: access to cash when someone needs it most. Unfortunately, these loans have insane interest rates that, again, further worsen economic precarity in exchange for short-term liquidity.
Because of the predatory nature of payday loans, it’s easy to think of them as the enemy of the worker. But, as we dig deeper, payday lenders are merely a market response to a broader failure that we all accept as a reality: the paycheck.
Why the Paycheck is the Enemy
When we think about the standardized two-week paycheck, it’s essentially an ingrained inevitability in our lives. The two-week pay period and the paycheck itself is a relatively antiquated invention, springing up with the advent of payroll and income taxes that were extended to the working class in the 1940s.
Billing cycles don’t exist on the same timeline as paychecks. Having a phone, internet, gas, electric, you name it bill hitting at different points throughout a month and having those dates have no correspondence to when you get paid is a problem.
And in 2021, with technology capable of paying out hourly workers at the end of every day or, realistically, every hour, there’s no excuse to tether ourselves to the same structures that defined the latter half of the 21st Century. Because when you’re in a dire economic circumstance, the difference of a week, or two weeks between checks can be catastrophic.
Remember, this is money that a worker has earned, through their labor, caught in a latency period for a reason that nobody can really explain aside from “it’s just the way it is.”
What We Can Do About It
Hourly workers need access to their income, immediately, full stop.
There are some lessons that hourly employers can learn from the gig economy model. Namely, being able to be paid on-demand. When a Lyft driver finishes a fare, for example, they’re paid for that service. I’ve personally spoken to multiple Lyft drivers who work full-time hourly jobs, but still drive in order to get cash in hand quickly to make ends meet.
Employers of hourly workers need to give their employees immediate access to their income and, furthermore, they need to offer it as a free benefit to their employees. There are companies that partner with employers to give workers early access to their paychecks, but like payday loans, they charge fees when the employee is most in need. Even provides similar services through an employer, but doesn't impose fees on employees.
This exploitation isn’t a benefit, but operates under the same predatory framework as payday loans. Except, this exploitation is even worse because it’s sanctioned by the employer. Think of it this way: would it be acceptable to charge a worker fees to access an automated paycheck system? Of course not. Then why is it acceptable to charge for early wage access?
Investing in Early Wage Access is an Investment in Employees
As employers attempt to ramp up staffing of hourly workers in their reopening efforts, it’s clear how mistreated these essential workers have been for so long. While early wage access doesn’t have the ability to solve every problem facing the working poor, it can be the first step towards an hourly worker gaining financial stability and independence.
Employers have a responsibility to their workers. Early wage access breaks the bond of an arbitrary paycheck latency system that unwittingly immiserates millions of already vulnerable workers. When employers begin accepting more responsibility for the financial health of their workers, they create conditions to attract, develop and retain workers in this competitive job market.