MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
To another story now. Forty percent of Americans don't have $400 to cover emergency expenses such as car repairs. Some people turn to payday loans or other costly ways to borrow money. But now, as NPR's Chris Arnold reports, companies are stepping in to help their workers with a much cheaper way to get some emergency cash.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: More companies these days are offering this kind of help from giants like Walmart down to little fried chicken restaurants.
KEITH BROWN: This is where it all happens. This is the kitchen here.
ARNOLD: Keith Brown is a cook at Lee's Famous Recipe Chicken in Richmond, Va. He and the crew are gearing up for the lunchtime rush.
BROWN: What he's doing there is flouring the chicken up. It's called the famous chicken.
ARNOLD: The restaurant owner, Henry Loving, noticed over the years that many of his workers here were getting burned - not with fry oil but by high-cost loans that they'd get stuck in.
HENRY LOVING: You know, a lot of times the folks that I have working for me are tight on money and, you know, go out and do payday loans or something like that. And by the time I get wind of it, it's too late. They're in all kinds of extra hard trouble trying to get that paid off.
ARNOLD: Keith Brown, the cook, remembers a few years ago his brother was in the hospital, and he needed to get to New York to see him. So he took out a high-interest payday loan for $400.
BROWN: I got the loan, but it kept me in the hole. I had to continue to get loans maybe for about three or four months to pay it back. And when I finished paying it, I ended up paying double the money that I had got. I actually paid more than $900 back before it was over.
ARNOLD: Henry Loving, the owner, says sometimes he'd loan employees money himself just to get them out from under these loans.
LOVING: And they are embarrassed to ask, but they'll come to me and - I mean, otherwise they'll end up homeless or have to move out of state.
ARNOLD: But then he heard about a company called PayActiv. It's a tech startup that helps businesses to get their workers emergency cash for very small fees. And he signed up. Safwan Shah is the founder of PayActiv. He says the need out there is huge with so many Americans paying really high fees in interest when they're short of cash.
SAFWAN SHAH: Our data analysis showed that it was close to $150 a month being paid by the working poor - poor employee or poor hourly worker in this country. That's a substantial sum of money because it's about $1,800 to $2,000 a year.
ARNOLD: And Shah realized that often people don't need to borrow very much money, and he says actually workers have usually already earned the cash that they need by working enough hours. They just hadn't been paid yet.
SHAH: So we said the problem is really a between paychecks problem.
ARNOLD: So his PayActiv company lets workers get access to that money that they've already earned. Workers at many companies now, including Walmart, download an app to their phone and that's linked to the employer's payroll system.
SHAH: So if they've worked, you know, nine days and they got to $100 each day, so let's say they've already earned $900 but payroll is still five days away. So they will see a number which is half of the amount they have earned that is accessible to them.
ARNOLD: So if they need that $400 for a car repair or a trip to visit a sick brother, they tap a few buttons, and the money gets zapped to their checking account or a prepaid card. And the fee is $5, which sounds a lot better than getting stuck in a cycle of debt with costly payday loans. The app also has some creative ways to nudge employees to build up a savings account so that they're not chronically strapped for cash.
LAURA SCHERLER: I really think it's game-changing.
ARNOLD: Laura Scherler is a director for economic mobility at the United Way. She says some other companies work with employers to offer workers actual loans - so more than just an advance on hours that they'd already worked. Consumer advocates say employers should be careful here to make sure that their workers are getting a good deal. But Scherler says there are good lower costs loan options.
SCHERLER: There seems to be a couple of things coming together right now that make this really exciting. I think employers are increasingly aware that financial stress impacts their workers.
ARNOLD: More than 100 companies have now signed up with PayActiv. A Walmart executive says there has been a, quote, "extraordinary response" from employees and more than 200,000 Walmart workers are now using the system. Chris Arnold, NPR News.
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