Earlier this month, Bank of America Merchant Services (BAMS) and the Money Network(R) announced the launch of the Money Network(R) Payroll Distribution Service sponsored by Bank of America. According to the press release on MarketWatch:
"The program enables employers to comply with complex payroll distribution laws, such as the need to offer a paper paycheck and free check cashing locations, while providing a safe and convenient pay alternative for employees who do not have access to a deposit or checking account. With the Bank of America-issued Money Network(R) Service, the payroll process is efficiently streamlined through more than 17,750 Bank of America ATMs and 43,000 Allpoint(R) Network surcharge-free ATMs..."
This is huge news. The benefits for employers are numerous. I'd written previously about a version of this payroll solution at Walmart. Most employers would stop printing paper checks as paycards allow them to avoid check printing expenses. The benefits for consumers seem questionable.
This payroll solution enables companies to essentially provide selected banking services to their employees. Where is the line between a company and a bank? It seems blurred with payroll services like these. Have you asked your employer for check-cashing services? I doubt it. Something else is going on here.
Notice that the press release includes this statement: "for employees who do not have access to a deposit or checking account." The banking industry uses the term "underbanked" to identify consumers that have a checking account or a savings account, but not both. The industry uses the term "unbanked" to identify consumers who don't have both types of accounts.
According to a 2009 FDIC study (Adobe PDF document), only 7.7% of U.S. households are unbanked. Those unbanked households typically make less than $30,000 per year, and 66 percent of them use services with high fees: non-bank money orders, non-bank check cashing, pawn shops, payday loans, and rent-to-own services. The same study also found:
"Minorities more likely to be unbanked include blacks (an estimated 21.7 percent of black households are unbanked), Hispanics (19.3 percent), and American Indian/Alaskans (15.6 percent). Racial groups less likely to be unbanked are Asians (3.5 percent) and whites (3.3 percent)."
Those percentages are probably higher given the prolonged economic downturn of the last couple years. I doubt that BAMS and Money Network targeted this new payroll service at only the 7% unbanked slice of the market. The same study found that about 18% of U.S. households are underbanked. The market for this new payroll service seems to be both unbanked and underbanked consumers who currently use high-fee banking services, plus the upside potential:
- More consumers might become underbanked or unbanked during economic downturns,
- Employers with operations in developing countries have a larger percentage of unbanked employees,
- Employers with a large percentage of seasonal or contract workers, and
- If positioned a certain way, the new payroll service could capture more market share from employees that already have both checking and savings accounts
Upsides #3 and #4 worry me. This new payroll service seems to me to be a slick method to force consumers to use certain banks -- to restrict freedom of banking choice. Think of it this way: employees that are paid by their employer via a Bank of America-branded Money Network(R) PayCard, are being paid with a customized debit card. Use that PayCard within Bank of America and Allpoint networks and there are few or no surcharges. Use that PayCard outside of its network, and more fees and charges apply. Where do you think employees will shift their banking to?
If a company uses the Money Network Payroll Distribution Service for all its employees, then those employees who already have checking accounts (at the banks of their choice) either lose their freedom to bank where they choose, or pay more in fees to bank where they choose.
This reminds me of the old "company store" practice from the 1800's where companies forced their employees to shop only at the company store which effectively kept them in debt bondage. Haven't we learned from this history?
Perhaps, we are now seeing the future of banking and the big banks' response to customer fury about checking account fees. The big banks could co-mingle employer payroll solutions with limited consumer banking services -- all without having to highlight the embedded debit/checking fees to consumers and let the employers take the heat. Afterall, employees may not complain if they are afraid for their jobs.
This 2005 State of California study (Adobe PDF) researched the advantages and disadvantages of payroll paycards:
"... Pay Cards give an employee who does have a bank account an alternative to carrying cash or cashing a check, which may require a fee. Employees who do not have bank accounts gain the convenience of using a debit card. However, depending on the program chosen by an employer, Pay Cards may or may not reduce payroll costs for the business and/or for the employees."
This study documented a variety of fees charged to employees' pay cards:
- Monthly maintenance fee
- ATM balance inquiry fee (per transaction)
- ATM in-network domestic withdrawal fee (waived or a limited number of withdrawals per month)
- ATM outside-network domestic withdrawal fee (per transaction)
- ATM in-network foreign withdrawal fee (per transaction)
- ATM outside-network foreign withdrawal fee (per transaction)
- ATM transaction decline fee (per transaction)
- Domestic customer service automated inquiry via phone fee (per call)
- Domestic customer service live-person inquiry via phone fee (per call)
- Point-of-sale pinless signature purchase fee (per transaction)
- Point-of-sale cashback fee
- Emergency cash transfer fee (annual)
- Emergency cash transfer fee (per transaction)
- Bill payment fee (per transaction)
- Funds transfer fee
- PIN change fee
- Paycard replacement fee
- Paycard replacement fee (express delivery)
- Negative balance fee
- Account closure fee
- Duplicate statement fee
- Research fee (per hour)
- Tax levy or garnishments fee (per occurrence)
And, all of these fees for employees are in addition to fees the bank charges the employer directly for the payroll service. So, costs for employees go up when multiple fees apply, or to use a payroll paycard outside of the network at the bank of their choice. More fees apply if the employer negotiated a poor deal for its employees. These fees are effectively an economic incentive to force employees to do business at certain banks.
It is easy to find paycard solutions. This guide for employers' human resources department professionals lists ten branded payroll paycard services.
If you think that this is enough, there's more.
Similar to the Walmart Money Centers, the Money Network PayCards are insured by the FDIC (via MetaBank). So, as more employers provide limited banking services, the federal government (via taxpayers) is responsible for insuring more accounts. It would be preferrable for more public discussion about whether we want to insure more non-banks doing banking during a time of limited government budgets.
My first impression of this payroll solution was that it may be a security issue, since it allows consumers to easily move money around the globe, with Allpoint ATM locations in the USA, Mexico, Australia, and the United Kingdom -- today. In the future, Allpoint may serve more countries. In a world where governments are concerned about terrorism, this payroll solution struck me as a potential security risk.
Then again, this payroll solution could make it easier for employees to send money to relatives in their home country -- assuming the relatives have paycards, too.
After researching this investigative article, I have learned to keep an eye on both Bank of America Merchant Services, and Banc of America Merchant Services LLC. With this latest announcement, I have learned to also keep an eye on Money Network(R), a First Data Company.
What's your opinion? If your employer pays you with a payroll debit card or paycard, please share your experiences below. I've Been Mugged readers are interested.