At the beginning of 2020, you had a plan for your finances. Maybe you planned to buy a house, pay off student loans, help your parents with medical expenses, start building savings, or get out of debt. But then something happened. A big something.
We’re in an important moment in personal financial health in the U.S. A confluence of factors–systemic racism and inequality, mass furloughs and layoffs, health risks, lack of family care support–are making it difficult for some people to maintain financial stability and difficult for many people to establish it at all.
According to a 2020 report published by the Financial Health Network, only a third of individuals in the U.S. are financially healthy, half are financially coping, and 20% are financially struggling. Inequality is clear when you parse financial health by race. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center in January, 58% of Asian American adults and 60% of white adults said their financial position was in “good” or “excellent” shape, while 66% of Black adults and 59% of Hispanic adults said their finances were in “fair” or “poor” shape. Many people say the effects of the pandemic will affect their finances over many years, some say in perpetuity.
Increasingly, employers are looking for opportunities to support their workforces in improving their financial health. Some are even making it a part of their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) strategies. Financial Literacy for All, for example, is a coalition of major companies including Delta Air Lines, Disney, and Walmart, aimed at making financial literacy part of American culture. And Mercy, a St. Louis-based health care system that employs more than 40,00 people, created DEI-focused oversight for their benefits administration.
Ayanna Baldwin, a director of benefits and diversity officer at Mercy, said that last year the organization established a DEI governance board, appointed four diversity officers, and created a council called the Social Determinants of Co-worker Health, whose focus is to promote and establish programs that provide equity and dignity. “We also have a financial-wellness committee,” said Baldwin. “The financial wellness committee ensures and explores all options available to coworkers so that we can assist people along their financial journey every step of the way.” The council, she said, outlines guiding principles for issues like living wages and health-care equity.
Baldwin was among five expert speakers in a From Day One webinar, “For a Diverse Workforce, Are Your Financial Benefits Fair and Equitable?”, which I moderated. During our conversation, we talked about how employers are responding to the personal financial crisis in real time and how to think about designing benefits packages with DEI in mind.
“For 99% of employees, the employer is their sole driver of wealth creation. You're paying their paycheck, you're giving them a retirement account, health insurance, HSAs, FSAs, additional benefits,” said Matt Watson, founder and CEO at Origin, a company that works with employers to provide employees with financial planners and financial technology, about the importance of company support for employee financial wellness.
Bernie Knobbe, senior VP of global benefits, well-being, and compensation at the global infrastructure engineering firm AECOM, said he considers financial health part of overall employee care. “Financial well-being drives emotional well-being drives physical well-being and all the other aspects of that,” he said. “We didn't really think of it as financial wellness. We just thought of it as our global well-being program of which financial is one aspect.”
Employers are responding to specific financial hardships that have surfaced as a result of Covid-19. Craig Copeland, PhD, senior research associate at the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), said he’s seen a lot of discussion around emergency-relief programs administered through direct employer funding, cash advances, or paycheck loans. AECOM created a PTO donation program in which employees can donate paid vacation to colleagues who need it.
Copeland has also seen increased interest among employers in providing personalized financial-counseling services. “Everyone's finances typically are very different, so just offering a retirement plan really isn't helpful to the person [who is] struggling with debt. We really need to get them in a situation where they're able to save for retirement by getting their current finances in order, and that involves some coaching, some personalized experiences where people really understand and listen to them,” he said.
The identity and background of financial advisors matters, panelists said. Generic advice–contribute this amount to liquid savings, this amount to retirement–is out the window when someone has a mountain of student-loan debt or is caring for elderly family members.
Copeland said he has found that the ability to relate to one’s financial advisor makes a big difference. “When we specifically asked people what they look for in their financial advisor, the most common one is that they have someone that works with their experience, their particular financial experiences, or where their finances are.” Sharing a common identity–ethnicity or socioeconomic background, for example–can “give people an extra level of comfort,” Copeland said, because they know that this person shares similar values and experience and has their best interests in mind.
As does consistency. Said Origin's Watson: “So let's say I’m your financial planner, we've met, you've told me about your goals in life, what you're doing. Now, it's now three months down the road and something happens, and that kind of throws our pre-existing financial planning out the window, right? You come back, and I already know your story. And now that we’ve built a relationship, I can help guide you through that.”
Importantly, the panelists said they're not keen on making assumptions about what workers need, and are instead giving employees as much flexibility as possible.
Take, for example, Mastercard’s Benefits Choice program. The points-based system, currently available to employees in Mexico, allows workers to pick and choose what their total rewards look like. Ana Mendez, Mastercard's VP of total rewards for Latin America and the Caribbean, said this about the program: “This simple, innovative and effective platform allows our employees to choose the right benefits programs, and the coverage level, based on what is important to them and their current stage of life.” Mendez has customized her own benefits choices, she said. “I decided that I'm not going to use maternity coverage any longer, but instead of that, those points will go to me and I want to offer medical coverage for my parents.”
“I absolutely think that companies should focus on the habit and not the income,” Baldwin said. For example, it may seem logical to think of workers who access paycheck-advance services as being those with lower income, but “our average hourly rate of coworkers that utilize that benefit is much higher than the threshold that we consider a lower-pay coworker. There were director levels, executive-director levels, that utilized that benefit. We want to address the behavior, because income doesn't always equal financial maturity.”
How an employer presents its benefits menu also matters. “We don't want to assume we know what it is that you need, we want you to tell us what you need,” Baldwin said. To do this, Mercy delivers “climate surveys” every other month. Origin surveys its customers’ employees, Mastercard taps into affinity groups for ideas and feedback and uses focus groups when the company is about to launch something new, and AECOM takes regular “pulse” surveys to understand how benefits are being used.
As companies think about how they'll improve their packages in the service of DEI, they should meet workers wherever they are in their financial journey, the panelists said. Individualized attention is at the heart of DEI-centered financial benefits. This is why Mastercard lets workers pick and choose their packages, Mercy provides everything from paycheck advances to retirement-savings programs, and Origin maintains consistency of advisors. Said Watson: “If you can help the employee really navigate their specific situation, there's a significant increase in value to that individual."
Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in Richmond, Va.