The Gulf Today - Business - - TECHNOLOGY -

PHILADEL­PHIA: When Wal­mart sales as­so­ciate Emeraid Gems saw that her pay­check was $200 short, she started look­ing for so­lu­tions.

The money, she later learned, didn’t show up be­cause of a glitch _ her paid time off hadn’t gone through _ but the 35-year-old Get­tys­burg, Pa., worker couldn’t wait. She needed the money for her car pay­ment, or it would cost her $10 a day in late fees.

Then she re­mem­bered a new app she’d seen ad­ver­tised on Wal­mart’s sched­ul­ing plat­form: Called Even, it lets em­ploy­ees get a por­tion of their pay for hours they’ve al­ready worked.

In De­cem­ber, Wal­mart launched the app to its work­force, which gets paid ev­ery two weeks. Framed as an “in­vest­ment” in its em­ploy­ees, the pro­gramme was de­signed as an al­ter­na­tive to high­in­ter­est pay­day loans. Wal­mart joined a grow­ing group of em­ploy­ers of­fer­ing in­stant pay op­tions, in­clud­ing Uber, Mcdon­ald’s, and Panda Ex­press.

The new class of fi­nan­cial tech com­pa­nies say that their ser­vices re­duce missed shifts and em­ployee turnover, which are es­pe­cially high in the re­tail and hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­tries and dur­ing this time of low unem­ploy­ment.

But be­fore sign­ing up, Gems read through Even’s guide­lines: To get half her pay­check early would cost her $6 a month. First month was free, the rules stated, and then she’d earn an­other free month for ev­ery three months she had the app.

To her, it sounded as if she’d have to pay the $6 even if she wasn’t go­ing to use it to get an ad­vance, a fee that would come right out of her next pay­check. And it wasn’t clear how to un­sub­scribe. Gems balked. Gems, a mem­ber of OUR Wal­mart, a na­tional group that or­ga­nizes Wal­mart em­ploy­ees, has worked at the Wal­mart in Get­tys­burg for nearly eight years and earns $11.22 an hour.

Calls to Wal­mart and Even show Gems’ un­der­stand­ing of the app wasn’t en­tirely right. She had to pay the $6 fee only if she wanted an ad­vance and hadn’t earned a free month (free months are paid for by Wal­mart).

In ad­di­tion, Wal­mart spokesper­son Justin Rush­ing said, the app asks ev­ery month whether you want to subscribe, so it won’t take au­to­mat­i­cally take $6 out of your pay­check. Even on au­tore­new, the app au­to­mat­i­cally un­sub­scribes you if you haven’t used it for two months.

Still, Gems was con­fused. Shown screenshots of the app’s guide­lines, Wil­liam Hall, Philadel­phia’s fi­nan­cial em­pow­er­ment pro­gramme man­ager, said he didn’t think it was clear whether you had to pay the $6 fee on months when you didn’t get an ad­vance.

He sug­gested that Even and Wal­mart col­lect feed­back to en­sure work­ers un­der­stand how the fees work. Ul­ti­mately, the mis­un­der­stand­ing stopped Gems from us­ing the app.

Nearly eight months af­ter launch, 200,000 Wal­mart em­ploy­ees were us­ing Even to ei­ther man­age their fi­nances or get paid ahead of pay­day. Wal­mart says the ma­jor­ity of em­ploy­ees who use the app use the ad­vance-pay func­tion less than once a month. It’s a small frac­tion of the re­tail gi­ant’s 1.5 mil­lion em­ploy­ees, but the en­gage­ment numbers ex­ceeded Even’s pro­jec­tions, draw­ing the in­ter­est of other ma­jor em­ploy­ers and bol­ster­ing the Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pany’s bid to raise $40 mil­lion in ven­ture cap­i­tal.

Re­cep­tion to the app has been “over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive,” Rush­ing said, point­ing to the app’s re­views in the App Store. (From nearly 13,600 re­views, the app has a rat­ing of 4.9 out of 5.)

The main cri­tique of the app came from such Wal­mart staffers as Tuc­son, Ariz.-based Matt Fixel, who said the app sounded help­ful but “I would pre­fer it if they gave me more hours.”

‘A lot of con­fu­sion about how it ac­tu­ally works’

An in­for­mal sur­vey of North­east­ern US Wal­mart work­ers who are part of OUR Wal­mart showed that many hadn’t heard of the app and that those who had, like Gems, didn’t have a good sense of how to use it.

“There’s clearly a lot of mis­in­for­ma­tion and con­fu­sion about how it ac­tu­ally works,” said Lee­wana Thomas, a for­mer OUR Wal­mart or­gan­iser, cit­ing the con­ver­sa­tion in the com­ments of OUR Wal­mart’s Face­book group where em­ploy­ees dis­cussed the app.

Rush­ing was skep­ti­cal of OUR Wal­mart’s sur­vey, say­ing that some of their mem­bers aren’t ac­tual Wal­mart work­ers.

But Gems’ and her fel­low Wal­mart work­ers’ wari­ness about what they per­ceive as hid­den fees isn’t un­usual when it comes to how peo­ple see fi­nan­cial ser­vices, Hall said. He likened it to the dis­trust peo­ple have for tra­di­tional bank­ing in­sti­tu­tions.

And, Hall said, “if you don’t have a high amount of trust in your em­ployer, you might not be able to trust the tech­nol­ogy.”

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