High-Touch Servicing: How to Invest in Employees’ Financial Futures

Editor's note: This is the third of a series of five blog posts from the Workforce Financial Stability Initiative (WFSI) at Washington University in St. Louis (funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation) and Prosperity Now discussing workplace financial wellness. To learn more, visit Prosperity Now’s website for actionable resources for employers and WFSI’s website for research on approaches to building financial wellness at work.

To comprehensively address employee financial wellness, employers should include a mix of “high-touch” and “low-touch” financial programs. Low-touch programs address immediate financial needs but fail to offer support on longer-term financial goals. Higher-touch programs, like financial coaching and counseling, are better positioned to support financial stability over a sustained period of time and can be tailored to meet the situations of those most vulnerable to financial insecurity.

The Biltmore Company of Asheville, NC, is a great example of an employer that’s done a lot to include benefits that support employees’ long-term financial goals. The company offers several programs with OnTrack WNC Financial Education & Counseling, a nonprofit. With 2,000 employees, Biltmore is one of the largest employers in western North Carolina and operates Asheville’s grandest tourist attraction, the Biltmore Estate, which includes a 250-room chateau, two hotels, a winery, restaurants, retail shops and licensing rights for home products.

In collaboration with OnTrack WNC, Biltmore’s financial wellness programs focus on employees with low- and moderate-income households and specific financial goals. Each program offers free financial education, individual financial counseling and direct financial assistance. One program, the Biltmore Passport to Property, supports aspiring homeowners to save and prepare for purchasing their first home. Employees in the program participate for a minimum of six months. During this time, they have access to OnTrack WNC’s financial education and counseling, plus a $3 savings match for every $1 saved by the employee up to $4,500. The Bridge Program provides monthly financial assistance for 1-3 years to help cover housing and childcare costs for Biltmore employees. Support amounts vary based on household size, income and expenses, e.g., $50 to $654 per month for a two-person household.

Biltmore felt strongly that employees could benefit more from OnTrack WNC’s financial education and counseling if they could also receive direct financial support without paying extra taxes. To do this, they set up a need-based employee assistance fund (EAF), which is considered different from traditional employee benefits. With an EAF, a company funds a nonprofit which independently administers financial assistance following defined eligibility guidelines. With this program structure, financial assistance is not considered taxable income for participating families.

According to Jonathan Stansell, OnTrack WNC’s Program Development Director, the Biltmore’s holistic financial wellness programs are helping employees: “The assistance alone would be helpful, but the benefits would likely be short-lived. Our counselors work with employees and their partners to create a plan for long-term stability and success.” On its own, financial coaching and credit counseling have been found to promote financial behaviors (like making more savings deposits) and outcomes (like paying down debt) that likely improve long-term financial security. In Jonathan’s experience, by having the combination of financial assistance and counseling, “these programs are helping stabilize employee families before taking them to the next level financially.”

Vicki Banks, Vice President of Human Resources, affirms the benefits of pairing financial assistance with counseling: “It’s an investment in our employees, their families and their future.” So far, she’s witnessed how the programs “created confidence, hope and pride for those who have never dreamed that homeownership or financial freedom was a possibility.” And, the benefits seem to multiply. “Life happens, and for many, the financial impacts can be crippling . . . [Biltmore’s] employees are happy to share their successes and encourage others to participate. Financial education doesn’t exist in our education system, and if we can help our employee families navigate these waters with the help of OnTrack effectively, we all win!” 

For employers looking to implement similar financial counseling programs in their workplace, there are several to consider. Working Credit NFP focuses on building credit with financial education, counseling and access to credit-building products. The Trusted Advisors program utilizes a mobile-enabled platform with live financial counseling sessions by phone or Skype. To learn more about financial counseling and coaching services, check out the Workplace Financial Wellness Service Directory.

The next blog in this series will dive into the world of data, analytics and how employers can measure the effectiveness of financial wellness programs.

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