Brief

Using Data and Design To Increase Equity in Employee Financial Health

Data-driven understanding of employees’ needs can inform design and delivery of benefits programs that increase equity in employee financial health.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022
 Using Data and Design To Increase Equity in Employee Financial Health

Equity in the Workplace: A Growing Expectation

The last several years have transformed our lives, from the way we work and the expectations we have of our employers to the mainstream nature of conversations about equity and racial reckonings. A study from July 2021 found that 80% of U.S. employees believe that addressing equity is a central responsibility of the CEO and management. Citizens and employees are demanding more transparency, accountability, and fair play – and employers around the country have taken notice. 

As part of this trend, employers are increasingly focusing on holistic and equitable employee wellness. Employee wellness is commonly understood to include physical, mental, financial, and social health. Notably, however, employers are increasingly committing not only to provide benefits and rewards that support employee wellness, but to do so in a way that increases equity across their workforce. Supporting financial wellness for all workers means addressing the inequities in employee financial health outcomes, which in turn requires understanding the unique needs and experiences of different groups. By leveraging myriad types of data and reimagining the variety and design of benefits, employers can create more equitable and financially healthy workforces.

As part of an ongoing commitment to further workplace equity, the Financial Health Network connected with HR leaders at organizations varying in size and industry to better understand the challenges and opportunities they face on their journeys toward improving equity. Using publicly available data as well as interviews with HR executives, this brief summarizes actions companies can take to increase equity in financial health across their workforces. We will begin by examining which key data points to collect, and from where, followed by a discussion and examples of benefits design as a tool to reduce inequity. 

Understanding Employee Financial Health Needs and Disparities

It’s well understood that data can unlock insights into the financial needs of employees and help guide benefits decisions. Data can also provide a detailed picture of important differences and potential inequities in access and utilization of benefits across different segments of your workforce. Many employers we spoke to use a multitude of data sources, both quantitative and qualitative. While diversifying data collection yields powerful results, employers must first ask themselves: Which data points are most critical in understanding and reducing inequities among my employees, and where can I source that data most effectively?

Employers should ensure that all workers are earning wages that support their financial health, including contractors and temporary staff hired either directly or through outside firms. Tools such as MIT’s Living Wage Calculator or PayPal’s Net Disposable Income concept can be useful guides.

Key Data Points To Collect

In a world of increasing data availability, it can be overwhelming to choose where to focus efforts and what to collect. We recommend collecting disaggregated data in the following areas:

Access
The decisions employers make about access to benefits can have enormous impact in reducing employee financial health inequities. Often eligibility for benefits like paid time off or healthcare coverage is limited to more tenured employees or full-time workers. By overlaying demographic data with eligibility data, employers can better understand the impacts of expanding benefits access to new employee segments, who often have different demographic profiles than those who traditionally have access.

Awareness
A recurring theme among the employers we spoke to was an acknowledgment that large portions of their workforce are not aware of their companies’ full benefits programs. While awareness may feel like a harder data point to collect, it is a critical input on the journey toward greater equity. Brief surveys that ask employees whether they are familiar with company benefits can help employers understand levels of awareness across their workforce.

Utilization
Employers typically rely on aggregate-level data to collect information on benefits utilization. Increasingly, we see firms beginning to ask for more nuance from their HR teams and vendor partners, such as utilization across age, gender, and role. Utilization rates could be a function of affordability, or of relevance to a given employee segment. Creating a comprehensive utilization dashboard to understand which employees are using which benefits can provide rich information to HR teams and decision-makers.

Adequacy
Once an employer has a clear picture of access, awareness, and utilization of benefits among employees, it is time to assess the adequacy of those benefits. Employers may be offering benefits that aren’t meeting employee needs as intended or are only useful for certain workers. HR teams can ask their workforces directly (via surveys or qualitative means, discussed in detail below) whether the available benefits adequately meet their needs. Additionally, collecting data on the financial health challenges of employees can help HR teams assess whether the current benefits program is appropriate.

Employer Spotlight:

JPMorgan Chase

The JPMorgan Chase (JPMC) 401(k) plan matches the annual contributions of most employees, up to 5% of their compensation. However, employees who do not contribute 5% don’t receive the full company match available. JPMC has introduced several “Max the Match” marketing campaigns, targeting employees who missed out on company matching contributions in the previous year and who were not on track to maximize the match in the current year. Campaign recipients received personalized messages showing how much (in dollars) they missed out on from the prior year’s match, along with tools to help them determine how much to contribute to maximize the match in the current year. The campaigns have resulted in up to 12% of the targeted audience increasing their 401(k) contributions.

There are important relationships between these areas of data collection. For example, discovering that some employees are not aware of certain benefits may help explain low utilization trends. If employees are aware of a benefit to which they have access but aren’t utilizing, perhaps the benefit is not adequately designed to meet their needs. Leveraging data across these areas will build a compelling narrative to evolve toward more equitable benefits practices. 

Sources of Data

Once a company determines what kind of data it wants to collect and why, it must determine from where, and how, it will collect said data. 

Effectively using data to achieve equity goals requires planning and intention. Given the myriad sources, it is important to understand how best to collect and leverage different types of data. Whether using internal surveys, in-person dialogue, or data derived from external vendor partners, there are important considerations HR teams must take into account when reflecting on their organizations’ equity and inclusion objectives. Below are recommendations on how to leverage different data sources to achieve more equitable outcomes:

Internal Data Sources

Quantitative: Well-designed surveys help employers understand employee preferences and awareness levels, effective communication channels, and adequacy of benefits to meet employee needs. When considering using survey data to further equity objectives, employers must take care to:

    • Protect employee anonymity. When disaggregating survey data, analyze data in groups of no fewer than 5-10 employees (depending on company size) to avoid identifying any individual.
    • Create an environment in which employees feel safe to respond honestly. Explain how the company will collect and use data, and that responses won’t be tracked back to an individual. Consider contracting with third-party survey vendors to gather the data so as to reduce any perceived risk of internal repercussions due to honest feedback. 
    • Capture both real-time and long-term needs. Use a mix of annual and more-frequent surveys to capture immediate needs and track how those needs may change over time.

Qualitative: Employers we spoke to reported a wide variety of qualitative data-gathering techniques, including town halls, skip-level one-on-ones, manager forums, and office hours with senior leaders and/or the CEO. The data collected from these interactions are valuable in ascertaining benefits access, awareness, utilization, and adequacy, as well as capturing workers’ voices directly. When considering equity objectives, employers should:

    • Empower employees to ask their real questions. In group settings, allow employees to submit questions and responses anonymously. Open the window for questions and comments ahead of time as well as during the meeting, if technology allows.
    • Leverage employee/business resource groups (ERGs). ERGs are rich sources of information when it comes to understanding how different employee segments experience workplace benefits. Consider pairing each ERG with an executive sponsor who can present the group’s needs to senior leadership.
    • Prepare and equip themselves to have crucial conversations. Asking employees to openly share their financial needs and how company benefits are meeting those needs must be handled delicately. Skillful facilitation is required for an inclusive and informative conversation, both in groups and one-on-one meetings. Equipping managers and HR leaders with appropriate training, or hiring external facilitators, will ensure a more open dialogue when discussing complex and sensitive subjects. Companies are beginning to tap their internal diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) committee leaders for this role as well.

External Data Sources

While benefits providers are an obvious source of utilization data, they do present some challenges to gaining meaningful insights. Some benefits vendors might not share any kind of disaggregated information, only providing usage, balance, or contribution data at the aggregate level. Some employers are running into challenges with large vendors whose systems have not kept up with diversity norms. For example, an employer who includes transgender as an option in internal demographic data has found that when those data are sent to its insurance provider, transgender is not recognized and is defaulted to “male.” The more employers continue to push and expect their partners to evolve, the more likely we will see large-scale structural change.

Addressing Inequities Through Benefits Design

Once they have better understood employees’ needs, employers can focus on access, awareness, utilization, and adequacy as pillars around which to implement changes to their benefits.  

Access

Increasing access to benefits can take a variety of forms, including adjusting existing benefits and adding new offerings. Employers can broaden eligibility criteria or vary the cost of benefits in ways that meet the needs of less financially healthy employees.

Broadening Eligibility

By expanding access to benefits that support financial health to include more employees, employers can improve financial health outcomes, particularly for those that are more vulnerable. Often benefits eligibility is limited for part-time or shorter-tenured employees. 

Employer Spotlights:

Target

Target recently announced that it is expanding access to both its healthcare benefits and 401(k) plan for employees. Under the new policy, members of Target’s workforce, including retail team members and warehouse employees who work a minimum of 25 hours per week, will be eligible to enroll in a Target medical plan – down from 30 hours per week. Target is also reducing the waiting period for eligible hourly team members to enroll in its medical plan, providing access three to nine months sooner, depending on position. The company is also reducing waiting periods for access to the company’s 401(k) plan. These changes help advance the company’s Target Forward strategy, which aims to create equity and opportunity for the Target team, partners, and community.

Chipotle

Chipotle offers three days of sick time to all employees immediately upon hire, rather than using an accrual system. It also makes preventive healthcare, vision, and dental coverage available to all employees, including those who work part time.

Bank of America

Bank of America recently revised a long-standing policy when it opened up its stock awards program to employees who make less than $100,000. The amount of stock award is based on compensation level and is significantly higher than the bonuses previously given to lower-paid employees. The stock units will vest over four years.

Varying the Cost of Benefits

An increasing number of employers are adjusting the employee’s share of the cost of benefits relative to their earned incomes. According to a 2019 estimate, 25% of large employers varied contributions to healthcare premiums based on employee pay levels. Several employers we interviewed offer similarly tiered structures for other benefits, including long-term disability insurance, life insurance, 401(k) matches, child care assistance, health savings account (HSA) contributions, and wellness incentives. Benefits that are more affordable become more accessible to lower-paid employees.

Employer Spotlight:

Prudential

Prudential Financial offers U.S.-based employees tiered pricing for benefits such as healthcare premiums and HSA contributions. While tiered pricing is becoming more common, companies must be transparent in their pricing decisions. Prudential, with over 15,000 U.S.-based employees, structures price differences using its internal grade levels as a proxy for compensation.

Awareness and Utilization

Once they have examined and addressed issues of access, employers must work to ensure that employees are using available benefits. Both a lack of awareness of available benefits and barriers stemming from program design can cause low utilization. Obstacles to access, such as pricing, may also result in low utilization, or the benefits may lack relevance for certain employee segments, in which case an employer would expect some low utilization rates. Well-designed programs and a consistent, targeted communications plan can help ensure employees are aware of – and using – the benefits available to them. 

Communication

Using data to identify employees that have access but are not using a benefit can help HR departments conduct targeted communications, nudging and reminding individuals of what is available. Asking employees about their preferences of channel, frequency, and style of these communications can help improve their impact.

Employer Opportunity:

Use Data About One Benefit To Inform Communication About Another

A national food services retailer saw differences in utilization of its retirement benefits across demographic segments, in terms of contribution levels and number of hardship withdrawals. These data were used to make changes to the plan, including more communication about increasing contributions. This same employer also collected data on who was using a new emergency fund for employees. In the future, there is an opportunity to target those employees who take hardship loans with information about the emergency funds available, helping these individuals avoid fees and penalties associated with early withdrawals.

Design

Employers can also leverage behavioral science to improve benefits design and increase participation. For example, one of the easiest ways to ensure steady contribution to a short- or long-term savings account is automatic transfers. Evidence suggests that auto-enrollment and auto-escalation can help maximize participation in retirement plans, as well as providing default contribution rates and fewer plan options to reduce complexity. For benefits that involve an employer paying for a service or skill for an employee, such as education or credentialing, timing of payment is key. Asking employees to wait for reimbursement may preclude lower-paid staff from utilizing the benefit due to lack of funds. By paying costs upfront, employers can remove a barrier to use.

Employer Spotlight:

Starbucks

Starbucks has partnered with Arizona State University’s online program to offer to pay for 100% of first-time bachelor’s degrees for Starbucks employees (partners). Starbucks pays the tuition directly, rather than by reimbursement.

Employer Opportunity:

Revise the 401(k) Match Calculation To Encourage Small-Dollar Savings

Employees want to plan for their futures, but often find themselves without enough money for life’s unexpected expenses. This can result in leakage from existing retirement plans or low contribution levels in order to boost daily cash flow. Some companies have opted for a “stretch match,” or applying an existing dollar match to higher contribution rates – for example, matching 50% of the first 8% of pay, rather than 100% of the first 4%. However, research suggests that this design is actually associated with lower participation and contribution rates. Rather than stretch matches, employers can incentivize small-dollar contributors by matching 100% as high as is feasible for the company.

Adequacy

Adequate benefits are those that properly address employee needs. This means that benefits are accessible, affordable, relevant, and sufficient. Traditionally, HR leaders designed benefits for the average employee, guided by the principle of fairness for all employees. As more nuanced presentations of identity continue to emerge, it is clear that one size does not fit all. Targeted approaches and inclusive offerings must exist in order to meet the diverse needs of today’s workforce. 

Introduce Targeted Benefits

Employers have long offered benefits that are available to all employees, yet designed to address challenges that only some employees face, such as smoking cessation or diabetes management programs. Similarly, certain financial health benefits will have an outsized impact on financially vulnerable employees, helping reduce outcome disparities. 

Employer Opportunity:

Prevent Employees’ Financial Stress Through Emergency Funds Resources

Research continues to highlight the need for access to emergency funds for employees across the country, and employers are responding with a variety of solutions. While not all employees may need access to real-time cash infusions, for those that do, having a well-designed option can prevent financial stress. There are a variety of ways employers can offer this targeted benefit. Employers can provide employees in immediate need with access to earned wages in advance of payday by partnering with an increasing number of fintech companies that offer payroll integration. Some employers are working with credit union partners to offer high-quality, small-dollar loans repayable in affordable installments. Still others are providing access to hardship funds held within the company, which can be funded by the employees or the employer, and offered either as a grant with no requirement to repay or a loan to be paid back via payroll deductions.

Inclusive Offerings

Providing care benefits that are culturally competent can help individuals feel welcome, while increasing inclusion broadens the number of employees who can benefit from a particular offering.

Employer Spotlight:

Salesforce

In 2020 Salesforce partnered with Included Health to provide culturally relevant and competent healthcare to its LGBTQ+ employees. Included Health acquired a queer- and trans-led team that understands the challenges this community faces when interacting with the healthcare system.

Advancing Workplace Equity Through Data and Design

The extraordinary shift happening between workers and employers is having a significant impact on all sides of the labor market. In order to distinguish themselves in an economy that favors workers, employers need to make real investments in the wellness of their workforces through a lens of increased equity. By developing clear targets and an intentional plan to get there, employers large and small across the country have a powerful opportunity to use their benefits and rewards strategies to create meaningful change.

Our Supporter

This digital brief is made possible through the generous support of the Target Foundation. The opinions and recommendations in this brief are of the Financial Health Network and do not necessarily represent the view of our funders, partners, or those acknowledged.

Written by

  • Tanya Ladha
    Senior Director, Workplace Solutions
    Financial Health Network