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 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 program was designed as an alternative to high-interest 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.
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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 auto-renew, 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 program 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 U.S. 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 organizer, 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."
Philadelphia Media Network is one of 19 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city's push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at https://brokeinphilly.org.