COVID-19 Infects Financial Stability, But Chronic Low Wages Are The Culprit
The Federal Reserve found in 2019, 37 percent of adults saying they could not cover a hypothetical expense of $400 with cash, savings, or a credit card, instead, they might turn to Payday lenders who can charge up to 400% interest for a two week loan, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. What’s their Pay-Day loan collateral? The wages and salary the employer has yet to pay. Workers may have to pay up to 400% interest for access to wages and salaries they earned, but have not yet received.
Remember that sinking feeling when you first started work? You might have even wondered why the employer didn’t pay you first. A bi-weekly paycheck means you work for two weeks before getting paid. For those living paycheck to paycheck, this two weeks can put you behind with bad credit and high interest rates and credit card fees.
Though many gig workers want the benefits, union access and labor rights afforded to regular employees, being paid instantly is a substantial perk to a gig. At least one company, Ceridian CDAY – a global human capital management technology company – may have a partial solution to the payday loans and liquidity problem of “more month than money.” They seem to be having some success convincing their clients that those who work for them want the option to be paid like day laborers.
The company offers a product which allows employers to pay their employees at the employees’ request before pay day. It is not an advance, but rather payment for work already done. Some employers like it. “When you work in a call center, there are some things that aren’t very flexible. We need employees at their desk, on the phones making calls…” said an official for Crescent Bank (via Ceridian’s public relation’s center). “We can’t offer a ton of flexibility with attendance, [but] we can provide a benefit that other shops are not offering,” he said referring to Ceridian’s product.
Employees might be attracted to employers who offer this option, because faster pay could solve a low liquidity problem. Ceridian commissioned a Harris poll survey of 2,070 U.S. adults ages 18 and older — 1,158 who are employed — for three days starting October 19, 2020. The findings (not posted but sent to me privately upon request) are similar to the Fed’s study, one-third of Americans do not have enough saved to cover monthly groceries. This cash poor situation also creates uncertain futures. The Federal Reserve finds only 37 percent of non-retired adults think their retirement savings are on track, while 44 percent think it is not and 19 percent are unsure.
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Older Americans tend to have more savings for monthly groceries. 86% of respondents 65 and older report having the required savings compared to 50% of 18–34 year olds. This may say more about the number of years they’ve had to save than their real stability. Older Americans are not out of the woods.
In an ideal world, a near-lifetime of work would afford every older household a financial buffer to cushion a blow to income or health. Most try to have some savings and reasonably priced credit lines in case of unexpected medical bills or joblessness. But in the not-so-ideal world we live in, millions of older households do not have cash savings or other liquid assets to make up for multiple months of lost income.
As a result, financially fragile older households are more at risk of depleting their retirement savings to make ends meet, as evidenced in the current Covid-19 recession. When these households retire — or are forced into retirement—they will have less retirement income and will face downward mobility in the last years of their lives.
STAGNANT WAGES CAUSE FRAGILITY
Most financial fragility is caused by low pay, not the frequency with which low wages are paid. According to the Economic Policy Institute, wages have stagnating over the last 40 years (disclosure: I sit on the board of EPI). “From the end of World War II through the late 1970s, the U.S. economy generated rapid wage growth that was widely shared,” the institute reports. Since 1979 average wage growth has slowed sharply, with the biggest declines in wage growth at the bottom and the middle.
Low wages and the ensuing financial fragility are the result of eroding unions and worker power. Workers no longer have the political clout they once did. And so over the past 40 years, they have only been able to achieve weak and sporadic increases in the minimum wage. These minimal increases have not been enough to keep up with inflation. The real value of the federal minimum wage (currently at $7.25 per hour) has dropped 17% since 2009 and 31% since 1968 (adjusted for inflation). This amounts to about $6,800 less per year for a full-time worker making the federal minimum wage today than for their counterpart 50 years ago.
It’s unlikely employers using products such as Ceridian’s will be able to solve the financial fragility problems of the U.S. That problem stems from 40 years of stagnating wages and waning worker power. In other words, it’s not an issue of how often, but rather how much employers pay their workers.