The economic fallout from the pandemic has created serious financial insecurity and hardship for millions of American employees and their families. In fact, according to a recent Jellyvision study, 44% of employees are worried about their current financial situation, and 35% of employees feel their employer isn’t doing a good job supporting their financial health.
In this panel discussion, Jellyvision’s Chief Revenue Officer Helen Calvin sits down with Jason Kessler, SVP and Director of Product Management at HSA Bank; Mark Chapman, VP of Total Rewards at Red Robin; and Will Sealy, Co-founder and CEO of Summer, a company that helps borrowers deal with student debt, to discuss how COVID-19 has changed their approach to employee financial guidance. Topics covered include: the tactics getting the most traction, the employee stories that have impacted them the most, and bold predictions for how this crisis will change financial wellness initiatives going forward. To check out the full discussion, either watch the video or read the transcript below.
Helen Calvin is the Chief Revenue Officer at Jellyvision. Since 2010, she’s been growing the company’s behavioral science expertise and leading the marketing, sales and account management teams behind ALEX, the most helpful employee decision support platform on the planet. In 2016, she was named one of Crain’s Tech 50.
Jason Kessler joined HSA Bank in 2015 and is responsible for overall product management, strategy, and innovation. The majority of Jason’s career has been spent developing and managing products related to consumer-driven healthcare (CDH), including over 15 years of healthcare and spending account experience with J.P. Morgan, United Healthcare’s Optum division, and WellPoint.
Having background developing products for both health insurance companies and financial institutions has allowed Jason to gain unique perspective on the healthcare issues affecting employers and employees and develop solutions that matter most to our customers. He holds a BA from the University at Buffalo and an MBA from the Lubin School of Business at Pace University.
Will Sealy is the Co-Founder and CEO of Summer, a mission-driven, certified B Corp committed to helping borrowers track their student loans and enroll them in the best possible repayment plan. Will brings over a decade of experience to the table, with past positions in the government and private sector including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the U.S. Treasury Department, as well as SoFi. He holds an MBA from Yale University, and a Business Administration certificate from Georgetown.
Mark Chapman is the Vice President of Total Rewards at Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, Inc. where he has led the Compensation, Benefits, and Human Resource Information Services functions since 2019. Prior to joining Red Robin, he spent 18 years as the head of compensation and retirement plans at Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc. Mr. Chapman began his 36-year career in the hospitality industry with the Walt Disney Company, where he held positions in Restaurant Management, Finance, and Human Resources. He holds an MBA from the University of Central Florida and a bachelor’s degree in Hospitality Management from Rochester Institute of Technology, and has earned professional certifications from the Society of Human Resource Management and World at Work.
Hi, welcome everyone! And thank you for joining us for this webinar and panel focused on how companies can provide better financial guidance to their employees during COVID-19. I’m Helen Calvin, the Chief Revenue Officer at Jellyvision. We’re the makers of ALEX, a software platform that helps your employees make better decisions about their benefits, their healthcare spend, and their financial lives.
We are particularly interested in this topic of how employers and employees are navigating this new world paradigm we find ourselves in. And I’m joined by some really great friends of Jellyvision, some compatriots from the market that we’re really excited to talk to today. We’ve got Jason Kessler, senior vice president and director of product management at HSA Bank, Will Sealy, who is the co-founder and CEO of Summer, a company helping borrowers with student debt, and Mark Chapman, Vice President of Total Rewards at Red Robin. Really excited to talk to you guys today. Thank you so much for joining.
Let’s dive right in. Financial wellness is really interesting. Starting about seven to 10 years ago, maybe about a decade ago, we started to see this trend of employers beginning to understand the gravity of the financial strife that many employees were dealing with. And they started making financial wellness a priority. It was the germination, the origination, of that term that we now all use pretty regularly.
So that was already happening. And then lo and behold, in 2020 a pandemic hits and maybe changes things. I’m curious how you think COVID has changed the way that employers, and the markets at large, are thinking about financial health or financial wellness. Jason, I know that at HSA Bank this is something you guys talk about a lot, right?
Yeah, absolutely Helen. And first, let me say that I think employers, for the longest time, like you mentioned, wanted employees to be more engaged with financial wellness. But in the past, the driver for that engagement quite frankly was their own bottom line. In the HSA, or health care world, the focus centered around what we would say is bending the cost curve on healthcare. But right now, so many consumers are asking themselves, am I prepared for my next financial health emergency? Or can I afford that next rainy day expense?
From an HSA Bank perspective, especially during this current pandemic, we’re encouraging our clients really to sit down and have all their employees do a financial check-in during this upcoming enrollment season, really emphasizing the idea of not picking the same health plan as you did in previous years, really doing the math, factoring in premium savings, tax savings, understanding more about the ways employers are contributing to those accounts.
In essence, we’re doubling down on the financial wellness angle, but of course from a healthcare perspective, since we know that there’s tons of employees over-insuring and not really getting the most out of their current benefits.
Yeah. On the healthcare side, benefits being this part of their income, a pretty substantial part of the money that they get every year that’s maybe not being maximized. Will, have you seen anything different on the debt side? Sort of the other side of the coin from income, how has COVID changed the way the market is thinking about the debt that people are potentially already saddled with?
Yeah, that’s a great question. And I’ll actually just harken back to the root of your question, which was the trend over the last 10 years. I think if we all recall the last financial crisis starting in 2007, 2008, a lot of employers started to look around and say, what is our role to play here for the employee? Thinking not just about the human health, but the financial health of their employee and a more well rounded perspective. The work that we do at Summer was really born out of that crisis, which as you know, we saw the mortgage crisis take hold. People started to look at debt products saying there’s a lot of consequences here when people can’t repay, what is the next crisis going to be?
At Summer, we’re focusing entirely on the student loan crisis, which arguably could be the next one. And we’ve seen headlines saying, student debt is a massive problem. It’s $1.6 trillion for 45 million people. And it’s getting worse every day. Obviously the president had an executive order over the past weekend, continually extending a freeze for certain types of federal loans, which has provided some short-term relief, but the debt remains and it’s going to continue to be a problem.
And when we think about the employer’s perspective on financial wellness, we have to put ourselves in the employer’s shoes. We work with over a hundred employers and when we talk to them, one of the things that they’re realizing is that it’s household income. Their employees may have a job, but their spouse lost a job. And suddenly the household income has dropped significantly, or they’re lucky enough to both be employed in a married situation, but their grandparents have huge health concerns right now because of COVID, or their parents, their kids’ grandparents. They’re taking on extra expenses to supplement the education for their kids because their kids were pulled from school. All these unexpected expenses are arising coupled with the fact that income has been impacted in many ways. And student debt, along with mortgages, credit cards, auto loans, it can drag down and create a more risky scenario for those involved.
The way we focus this is trying to help the employer navigate that. We try to create a very low-cost solution that leverages a lot of existing resources so that the employer is not paying for these benefits that save borrowers money. We’re working on their behalf to find federal and state loan assistance programs that employees wouldn’t know about and enroll them in those programs that can significantly lower their debt. For us, that’s the Goldilocks solution that makes it easier for the employer to save money, while also leveraging a lot more resources for their employees. And that reduces the financial stress and uncertainty for their employees, thinking about them and their lives holistically.
It’s interesting, you talk about that household income and Jason alluded to the benefits side, which even before COVID, wasn’t being used to its full advantage. And now we’ve got the problem of household income: even if it’s not the employee, their whole family might be struggling. It just seems like gasoline on the fire, right? We were already starting to have some problems and now gasoline is being poured on the fire. Mark, you’re in a great position to speak to the employer side. Has COVID changed how you were structuring or framing your financial wellness goals? Have they iterated, or changed, or has it just brought it more to the forefront?
Yeah, well, of course we’re in the crosshairs here in the restaurant industry of the whole pandemic. The effect was immediate and we had to really take advantage of communicating some programs that were available from the government. Normally, I would never advise an employee that they had alternatives, publicly anyway, for a loan or a hardship withdrawal and some of the advantages that the government had implemented and made available to employees that were struggling financially from the pandemic.
Our first reaction was to educate employees who were operating in an uncertain environment and who had their hours cut about alternatives that were available to them to supplement their income. The IRS changed the 401(k). We educated them on some alternatives regarding healthcare and COBRA alternatives to the employees.
Unfortunately, the pandemic is also impacting some of the education that we would love to do with these employees just from a cost perspective. We’ve had to delay some of those things into the future, but hopefully we recover and are able to get back on track on some of our plans.
It’s interesting you say you’ve delayed some of the things that you wanted to focus on. I think that what’s hard here, right? At the same time this has been gasoline on the fire, with employees in more dire situations, it also seems like there’s a little bit of a wake up call in terms of employees’ willingness to pay attention to some of the messaging.
We’ve been surveying employees about their benefits and concerns given COVID, and our recent survey showed that nearly half of employees are worried about their financial situation. That’s not that different from what we’d seen pre-COVID, but more interestingly, 66% said that they would pay more attention to their benefits this year due to this increased financial strain. With that kind of being maybe the new normal, I’m curious, Mark, when you’re talking about some of these specific initiatives, where you had the immediate talk [to employees] about their levers with 401k and hardship withdrawals and things, what are the two or three specific initiatives that you think might work this year that you’ve been focusing on putting into place?
Yeah, I think informing employees who might be spending a little bit too much on healthcare. We have only about 20% of our employees drive about 80% of the claims in our healthcare, right? And we have some real premium plans and then some high deductible plans; we offer three plans. Really educating the employees on their alternatives. If they’re not using that, then should they consider going into a lower cost plan? And really educating them on those alternatives.
And then just instilling the advantages, disadvantages, of different savings plans, such as 401(k)s. And again, their alternatives. If all of a sudden they have to change their savings needs, letting them know what is available to them. And then really trying to educate our managers on how they can maybe accommodate our employees’ earnings needs better. We’re kind of in this gig economy and we allow, in our industry, educating managers on how they can position their business to meet the needs of employees from a scheduling standpoint.
Yeah. And how managers can help [push] through some of the through lines of these messages. Something we talk about at Jellyvision all the time is, you could have a lot of corporate initiatives but often it’s that frontline manager who can help most with some of these.
I was thinking in particular, Jason, I know you guys at HSA Bank have a lot of thoughts about these different vehicles and what’s available for you. And certainly the HSA, in terms of liquidity and flexibility and roll over, is a piece that during times of economic strain we sometimes see people lilt a little bit more to. Is that kind of where you’re thinking about employers focusing their time?
Yeah, absolutely. And especially in the current environment, employers are looking for things that are actually going to make a difference both in the short- and the long-term, right? The HSA itself has certainly gotten renewed attention. You mentioned a few of the advantages, but the portability of the account in uncertain times, and the ability for consumers to take those funds with them, and to pay for health insurance, even when they’re unemployed, I think sends an interesting message.
On one hand, I think as much as we would like to believe it, we may not all be employed by the same employer for our lifetime. So thinking about benefits not as an annual event but more of a perennial event, and thinking about the HSA as something that can deliver immediate value, but also long-term value, is definitely becoming more and more attractive to our clients.
I’ll also mention that some of the hidden features of the HSA are becoming much more popular, like the ability to accelerate contributions based on an amount that the employee elected during open enrollment. This tends to come in handy when employers introduce an HSA-qualified plan in the first year, as employees worry about expenses that they incur very early in the year before payroll contributions hit the account. Things like that are starting to get more attention because they can make an immediate difference in the lives of the employees.
This is slightly switching gears, but you talked about the lives of the employees, and I think we’re talking a little bit at the macro level: what is the market trying to do? What are employers trying to think of? I think we can’t lose sight of the real stories that are happening in terms of employees and their finances.
And I know Will, you guys at Summer, you try and keep a real heavy pulse on this because it’s the actual spending, the actual financial outcomes that people are dealing with. What are some of the stories you’ve heard about the effects of the pandemic? How do you factor those into how Summer is thinking about this new need?
Thanks for the question, I think it’s an important one. The way we structure our business is that we’re helping the employer help their employees. We get the perspective of both touchpoints, the employer, and obviously all the folks that are impacted on the front lines of this COVID-related financial crisis.
And one of the things that we often do every week is tell the stories of people we’re helping. It allows us to refine and improve our product offering and really be customer-driven. And some of the stories that my teammates have shared recently: we’ve been helping a teacher who’s had significant cuts to her salary. And she, in fact, unfortunately, has a husband who is a medical professional and he’s been working night and day in the hospital, fighting the pandemic. The stress in their lives is at an all-time high. They’re really worried about their finances and the savings that they have put aside are shrinking. And they’ve had to have some really tough conversations, but there’s little patience to kind of have to go through all the paperwork there. So we came in and presented an option to them that assessed their situation and immediately freed up money by reducing their student loan payments from their nursing and teacher degrees. And they were jumping up and down because we were able to streamline a lot of complex information and paperwork. And then the employer was incredibly happy to see the outcome of that.
We’ve talked to a lot of folks who’ve been having to actually do some part-time work to supplement their at-half pay or half-time pay. I know Mark was talking about the restaurant industry. We’ve seen a lot of folks in and around the gig economy having two or three jobs trying to get by right now. I think everyone’s hyper-aware of the federal unemployment benefits being in this unclear environment. And I think it unfortunately means that employers now have to kind of think about—what are they going to do when there’s uncertainty in DC? We’re just constantly mindful of the people who are experiencing this on the front lines and we can supplement the employer’s ability to get the best possible information out.
And if you’re an employer listening and you’re thinking “I get it, it’s hard, what am I going to do?” I think any information is better than no information. Talking and communicating transparency. Inaction can be seen as a lack of interest or a lack of care. People would rather you just provide something and show that you’re trying, then to not engage on that. That’s one of the things we’ve been helping the employers we’re partnered with. What can they share? How can they share quickly? And just seem to their employees like they’re paying attention and they really do care.
I’ll just pile onto what Will said, because I think the little things matter. We may not be able to refinance a student loan at HSA Bank, but we know people are stuck in their houses a lot, we know that they can’t access healthcare in the same ways that they used to. We took some immediate action. We tried to promote a lot of our online partners that maybe took the place of some of the brick and mortar partnerships that we had in place, making sure consumers can actually use their HSA dollars if they still want to. We worked with companies like HSAstore.com and GoodRx. We got a five or ten dollar coupon immediately issued to all of our customers and actually saw over a hundred-percent increase in traffic to the online store. We know people really appreciated that and were really able to take advantage of something. Even though it was kind of small, it showed that we were paying attention and the employers ended up looking like the heroes because it was on their behalf.
I think that’s so important. Will, you’re talking about the unemployment rate and we talked about how some families, maybe they used to be dual income and now they’re single income. One of the things that gets woefully underreported is not just the unemployment rate, but the underemployment rate—how many people had to take jobs or roles out of necessity that maybe weren’t at the same income level or the same job level that they had before. Programs like you’re talking about, Jason—employers really putting those into place, leveraging them from their vendors—are important because employees need to be getting as much out of the jobs they have as they possibly can as cost saving mechanisms.
I’m curious though, Mark, I want to hear your opinion on this: we’re talking about, oh yeah, just do this, do that, do the other, add all these things. And as you’ve talked about, many employers, Red Robin not excluded, are a little bit in survival mode right now. You’re trying to limit spending on initiatives. You really need these sort of clear short term ROI things, financial wellness, or some of these programs that help employees right now, and maybe don’t show employers immediate ROI. How are you threading the needle? How are you evaluating whether you should or shouldn’t take on some of these initiatives?
Yeah, well, we’re hoping to take advantage of kind of what we’re on today, a Zoom environment where you’re able to reach out naturally to a number of people at one time. We operate in 40 different states, so as we go into open enrollment right now, we are planning kind of a virtual open enrollment. Our offices are effectively closed through January. Normally we have an onsite open enrollment and then you utilize Workday. We use Workday for communication to our field employees. We’re hoping to engage more field employees through this Zoom environment to educate. And looking forward to that.
And really just taking advantage of communication tools that are already available. We started to embark with educational partners to help us with financial education and we were gearing up to aggressively embark on that. But as you mentioned, due to our budget constraints, we’re going to have to dial back. But during that whole process of starting to put presentations together on financial education, what we realized was current vendors, such as our 401k vendor, our HSA vendor, our healthcare vendor, already have a lot of tools available. Right now, we’re really just focusing on presentations that we can put together ourselves and leverage those tools to use. That’s kind of where we will be moving here in the near-term till we’re back to regular operations.
It’s so funny, I’ve been working at Jellyvision nearly a decade, and of course our solution is virtual, sort of mimicking the conversation that you would have with a real human. And historically, that’s really been about ease of distribution for the employer. How do I reach many employees in a personalized way? And then COVID hit and we went, funnily enough…[laughs].
The digital transformation has been a little slow in the HR space, and people have been reticent to take it on. I certainly think the impact of COVID both on financial wellness and just the benefits and total rewards needs in general lit the fire to say, okay, you’ve been reticent to go fully digital, but now’s really the time to kind of think about that virtual side.
Mark, I want to dive into one piece of that a little bit more. You talked about the financial constraints and how you had some financial wellness initiatives that you were getting ready to tackle, but they got put on a back burner because of the financial budgetary cuts and things like that. How transparent are you with employees about these choices? How are you talking about budget cuts or things you might do to things like budget matches or stuff like that? What is the right amount of visibility that’s honest, but also you’ve got to be careful with employees sort of getting upset with how the company’s handling these financial times.
I went through the financial crisis back in 2008, 2009 and there was a lot of stress—a very similar situation in a lot of ways—but I noticed the employee base wasn’t as understanding about cuts and things that companies had to do to get through that period of time. This time, it seems like the employees are so much more open. They’re saying, we just want to survive, we want to get on the other side of this. And maybe part of that is because a lot of our employees have gone through that financial crisis. A lot of the Millennials, this is their second crisis. And of course, us baby boomers, it’s our third because we went through 9/11 as well.
I think employees are better attuned to the changes that companies have to make and the speed at which they have to deal with things. They’re more receptive to it. It still doesn’t mean they like it, but they’re more receptive to it. But I can tell you, our executive team has done just a tremendous job at keeping folks informed. And we had to do things I’ve never seen before, even during those prior two crises that I mentioned. Cut salaries—we’ve never cut salaries. I’ve been in both those periods, we’ve delayed merits or canceled merit increases, but never a cut in salary. And most companies, particularly in our industry, have had to cut salaries.
So it’s about just informing people that, okay, we’re under a temporary restriction and trying to get back to normal salaries and communicating that to them when that may occur as best you can without over committing, right? Because we knew that there was a potential for a second wave to hit. So to go and say, we can restore salaries on September 1 was a difficult thing to do. But we started to restore the salaries gradually and people saw improvement and we’re encouraged by that improvement. On Labor Day will go back to full salaries, but there’s other things that were impacted, such as incentive compensation. Again, just informing folks, and they just seem so much more receptive to that information and are very thankful for it.
In our industry, the service industry, I’m shocked at the resiliency of the field employee. Again, I think it has a lot to do with the gig economy that is becoming popular. They’re just saying, “okay, I can’t work at Red Robin today, I’m just going to go work somewhere else.” Actually, I think most of the financial pressure came from wage earners that were in the higher categories of wages. And I think some of that is just budgeting, that they were living too close to their means. So educating our employee base, going forward on proper ways to budget, have emergency funds, things like that [is important], because those were the groups that we heard a lot of stress coming from.
A little bit of a different tenor: I ran merchandising in retail in 2008. It was a really fun time, I’ll tell you. [Laughs]. We actually ran a survey earlier on in the pandemic that showed the majority of furloughed workers still had a positive impression of their employer. And I think that there is maybe a little bit more of an acceptance this time around just that we’re all kind of struggling through this and muddling through together.
I want to ask one more question before I let you guys off the hook. This has been so insightful and so helpful. If you were to leave all of the people watching this with some parting words, what do you think the lasting effects of COVID will be on financial wellness programs? How do you think perhaps employer priorities might be different a few years from now as we get out of the sort of right in front of us COVID impacts? What’s to come? Jason, I don’t know if you want to go first and tell us what you think.
Yeah. I may be a little repetitive, but I do think employers are going to start to work more with their employees to make benefits more of a lifetime experience, regardless of where you might be employed. Your needs don’t end on December 31st each year, and the employer can’t guarantee your job for many years. The ways in which you can make benefits more holistic I think are going to carry the day. And I think it’s also, to the previous conversation, a way to be much more realistic and candid with the employees about taking ownership of their own benefits because the employer may not always be there.
Will, that sounds right up your alley in terms of employees having to take ownership of their own sort of financial situation. Do you agree? What do you think is coming down the pike?
Yeah, I take like a 10,000 foot level on all of this. It’s hard to predict how things are going to go, but I can go back to the fundamentals. And that’s that the two most important things in a human’s life is their physical wellbeing—you can’t really function without being healthy and the ability to be able to interact with the world. And then your finances determine really what you can and cannot do. There’s a reason we call it financial health: it functions a lot like your own human health and you need to take care of it, invest in it. You need to care for it. It takes conviction from the individual to focus on it, but you also need assistance from others to ensure a long-term continuity and improvement.
And I think over decades we’ve seen the employer emerge as a key part of your physical health and playing a key role there. I think employers are going to continue to look at financial health as the secondary ingredient. And if we look at COVID in the way it’s unfolded, unfortunately in many ways, these two things are very correlated. In fact, states and the federal governments are just hitting their heads against a wall trying to figure this out. When they focus too much on human health it seems like the economy suffers. When they focus too much on turning back on the economic engine, people’s actual health can suffer. And these two are inevitably linked, and I think people are now realizing, thanks to the pandemic, whether they thought of it before, they certainly think of that now. And I think employers need to determine what role they’ll play.
In good times, financial wellness can be thought of an acquisition and retention tool. How do we attract some of the best talent? We have all these great benefits. And then how do we keep these folks? Well, they’re here to stay because of the benefits we provide.
But in a harder financial times, it’s much more about productivity, focus, making sure your employees are not distracted and stressed about their finances. In good times and bad, we see that financial wellness and investment by employers in it, is actually critical to the overall health of the business. And I think we’re just going to continue to see that trend pick up more and more coming out of this unfortunate pandemic that we’re in.
Mark, I see you nodding. You guys are obviously an employer who was already down the road of trying to do this. You may tell me what you think is going to happen and you may also have a thought on what you hope comes out in the next few years. What do you think is coming down the pike for Red Robin?
Whatever an employer can do to take the stress out of the day to day lives of employees, [they should do]. There’s only so much we can do on the health side, right? We can educate on the importance of physical health, which the pandemic is not helping in a lot of ways, right? I move from the kitchen table to my couch and back, and that’s about as much exercise I’m getting, particularly in Nashville where it’s about a hundred degrees with the humidity here.
Educating them on making smart financial decisions and taking the pressure off of the lack of knowledge there. What keeps me up at night right now, and is really maybe an advantage to really hone in on, on the education side, is taxes. We are going to have to pay, as a country, for all this stimulus that we’re doing. I’m not an economist and an expert in that area, but we’re paying out a lot of stimulus and I believe that will continue for the next three to six months, and we’re going to have to pay that bill. Taxes have got to increase, right?
How can we educate employees on how to take advantage of some of the great programs that are out there—financial programs, an HSA, a 401k, FSAs—to avoid overpaying taxes and saving and meeting their financial goals? I think it’s a unique opportunity. Folks can understand that taxes are going to most likely go up, so what better time to start really educating all levels of employees on tax-advantaged programs that exist? And there’s not a whole lot of them. But, total rewards professionals, if you don’t have a high deductible plan offering an HSA today, we just put ours in a year ago, and I got a great response out of it. Of course, employees at really all levels in the organization are concerned about security and the risks inherent in such a program, in near-term healthcare costs. And getting those programs started are sometimes really tricky, right? Until somebody builds up five, $10,000 on the HSA, they’re walking on eggshells.
But really educating on those programs [is important]. And we’re a self funded plan so it’s tricky too in the design aspect of these plans, because the premiums are higher in the better plans and lower in the high deductible. But as we shift, we get adverse selection and things like that. It’s not an easy landscape for total rewards today, but it’s one you’ve kind of got to navigate through.
So helpful. Thank you, Jason, Mark, Will, really, really appreciate your time. Sounds to me like one of the through lines here is just keeping up the communication, keeping up the human empathy to what people are doing. Strangely there’s an opportunity right now where employees seem to be in it with employers, and they also seem to be ready for some of these messages and tools that maybe you’ve had all along that haven’t gotten taken advantage of. How can employers be there to help get those in the hands of employees right now when they particularly need it?
I found this to be very insightful. You’re all three really helpful and experts in your craft. Thank you for your time. Thanks to everybody who watched this. If you have any questions or follow up thoughts, please reach out to Jellyvision or reach out to any of these folks because we’d love to continue the conversation. Thank you so much for your time and we hope you have a great rest of your day.