Pay-advance apps have been downloaded millions of times, and more employers are offering them as benefits to workers who need cash.
Americans have become accustomed to summoning just about anything on demand, from groceries to car rides. Now it’s just as easy to get paid when you want.
As the coronavirus pandemic squeezes household budgets, workers and employers alike are increasingly turning to pay-advance apps. They allow users, for a sometimes-optional fee, to request money ahead of payday. One even briefly offered a program for those waiting for slow-to-arrive jobless benefits.
And many customers see them as lifelines.
“I turned to those pay-advance apps to compensate where I couldn’t,” said Tasha Ayala-Spain, an American Airlines employee from Upper Darby, Pa., whose hours were slashed this year. She has used Dave and Earnin to get advances of up to $200 per pay period.
“It wasn’t like a loan to a bank,” said Ms. Ayala-Spain, who sometimes worked 50-hour weeks before the pandemic, loading and unloading baggage, mail and medical equipment from airplanes. “You don’t have to pay interest.”
The appeal is obvious: For a few dollars or less, users can cover a bill that comes due in the middle of a pay cycle or get cash for an unexpected expense, like a wildfire or hurricane evacuation. By tapping their earned but unpaid income early, they can avoid overdraft fees, late charges or worse — more predatory lenders. And come payday, the advance is repaid from their bank account or directly from their paycheck.
But these services, which millions have downloaded, come with question marks. Some customers have sued, regulators across the country are looking into their practices, and consumer advocates fear that the apps are glossy packaging for the kind of lending that can leave users stuck in an expensive cycle of debt.