“My baby needs milk. Our bodega is shut down because of the virus, and we can’t use our food stamps at the other store. Please, sir, if you could find a way to lend us even thirty dollars, we would repay it as soon as I can work again.”
“I’m a nurse’s aide, I have a high fever, and I’m on quarantine at home. The doctor prescribed an inhaler, but I can’t afford the fee.”
Thousands of phone calls like these have come in to the PayActiv customer service line since the COVID-19 crisis took hold. People who’d been laid off, who had to leave work to care for their children, who were showing symptoms of the deadly disease. People who, through no fault of their own, were suddenly scraping bottom.
A PayActiv survey of 12,000 workers in March of this year showed that right now, financial fear is stronger than the fear of death. Workers in the health-care, retail, and restaurant industries are feeling both fears intensely. “I feel like ‘essential’ just means exhausted and expendable,” one grocery worker said. Two in three of those surveyed expect to use payday loans to get through the COVID-19 crisis, which means they will pay outrageous fees to borrow the small sums they urgently need. They will, in other words, be praised and applauded for being instrumental in keeping the country moving, while they struggle to pay their bills, lack health insurance, and can’t put food on the table for their families.
PayActiv was founded to help reduce financial suffering in every way possible. Ordinarily, we provide free financial planning services and Earned Wage Access for a small fee. But these times are not ordinary. This is why we’ve waived our fees for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, and when a member calls in with an emergency, we do our best to give them the money they need. If someone asked for help to buy essential medicine or food for a child, wouldn’t you do what you could?
We are providing this assistance through our newly formed Access Foundation—a nonprofit dedicated to serving our members in need. As our CEO Safwan Shah has said, “The crisis calls for never-before seen collective action by businesses and all Americans to help provide relief to the workers living paycheck-to-paycheck each month, whether that includes banks eliminating overdraft fees, utilities canceling late charges, landlords suspending evictions, or creditors temporarily halting interest charges.”
These are all practical necessities. But our overarching goal of providing dignity, security and savings to our users requires something beyond practicality. It asks that we see a little differently—that we recognize that the woman cleaning the hospital is just as essential and just as deserving as the man running it. Perhaps this crisis can help us learn to exchange our natural wariness for an equally natural generosity. We’re in a new world, and we’ll need to fight our new fears together. If giving money to users who need a few dollars to feed a child or fill a new prescription doesn’t seem businesslike, perhaps we need to ask ourselves what a business is.
To paraphrase Safwan’s 2019 book It’s About Time: People who can barely make ends meet cannot concentrate on their work. Many employers are squeezing the humanity—the creativity, the energy, the goodwill—out of their workers. PayActiv strives to do the opposite: to support and encourage workers in ways that free them to do their best work. This crisis is an opportunity for us to reveal our respect for those who use our services by helping them when they need it most.
Kindness ripples outward. When we feel we can count on others, we’re more likely to be generous ourselves. Perhaps this crisis can remind us that the essential worth of an employee is far greater than any sum paid by the hour.
 “PayActiv Provides Free Liquidity for Workers During Crisis,” Markets Insider, March 26, 2020, https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/payactiv-provides-free-liquidity-for-workers-during-crisis-1029035825.
In fact, a study found that only one in five (21%) employees would describe...
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