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Here’s a novel approach to employee benefits: Offer something workers may need right now,  such as a small loan to pay off an unexpected bill. Or help them find a last-minute babysitter or longer-term affordable child care. Or just connect them to someone to talk to in order to get through a stressful day.

That’s the approach of WorkLife Partnership, a Denver nonprofit that’s been around for more than a decade and is eyeing a national expansion. Clients, which include Denver Health and Intermountain Healthcare, tend to employ front-line workers who could use that extra assist. The organization’s focus is on the things outside of work that stress out employees and aren’t part of a typical benefits package. About 44% of the folks they counsel have a financial concern but the type of benefit WorkLife provides varies from case to case.

Ambulances sit parked outside Denver Health on March 18, 2021. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Some people are really worried about rent and their housing expenses,” said Cindy Williams, WorkLife’s chief operating officer. “Some people are like, ‘I’ve got that covered if I don’t pay my utility bills. But now I’m really worried about my utility bills.’”

Paid by employers, WorkLife offers individual support with its small team of “navigators,” who help employees problem-solve and deal with issues like a sudden rent hike (Consider a roommate?) or household budget management. Approximately 69% of workers counseled last year did not have $300 saved for an emergency. 

The WorkLife loans, by the way, are between $400 and $1,000, don’t require collateral or a credit check and are provided within 48 hours. They are “designed to be a safe alternative to things like payday loans and predatory options that are often the only option especially for lower wage workers of color,” Williams said. The interest rate is 18% and workers pay it back through a payroll deduction. It’s a work perk that can build financial stability and, in turn, keep employees on the job.

Denver Health spokeswoman Heather Burke said the company receives great feedback from staff who use WorkLife’s resources. Investing in the well-being of its workers is important because “the main source of providing high-quality health care to our community is our staff,” she said.

Companies in need of workers spent the past two years boosting wages and adding employee benefits. In the most recent employee compensation report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, benefit costs increased 4.9% from a year earlier, compared with a more typical 2% to 2.9% in the years before the pandemic.

Many companies are expanding employee benefits to attract and retain employees. Paid sabbaticals are on the rise. Some airlines and airports are adding on-site child care facilities, Reuters reports. Companies like Guild Education in Denver focus on just one type of benefit — providing advanced education to workers, in Guild Education’s case — and have seen business soar.

But sometimes having that “navigator” to help sort through employee benefits or, well, life, may be the most valuable. A WorkLife survey of its users had 87% saying that access to a “navigator” helps them feel less stressed and 78% feel “more likely to stay at their current company.” WorkLife’s navigators are trained to know a company’s existing employee benefits as well as available public benefits, such as rent-assistance or child care-assistance programs.

In a survey of clients that WorkLife Partnership offered assistance to on behalf of an employer, the overall sentiment was that having access to one of WorkLife’s resource navigators was a positive experience and employees were inclined to stick with the company. (Screenshot)

“It’s a differentiator in terms of (an employee) wanting to stay with that employer because they feel like it’s an expression of that employer’s commitment and care for them,” said Williams, with WorkLife. “Their employer is saying, ‘Listen, we know that you have a life outside of here and sometimes it can impact you at work.’” 

Williams declined to share the cost to employers but said they work with companies of all sizes to find something affordable. There’s also about a 3% usage rate so that’s taken into account when setting the fee. Companies just need to inquire.

The organization just received a $700,000 grant from Schultz Family Foundation, whose namesake, Howard Schultz, turned a little Seattle coffee company into a global powerhouse. That money will be used to help younger front-line workers thrive so they’ll stick with health care careers and other customer-facing service jobs. Starbucks also happens to be a client.

➔ Speaking of child care … Since the state legislature created a grant program in 2020, Colorado has added 6,000 child care slots in areas known as “day care deserts,” reports The Colorado Sun’s Jennifer Brown. >> Read

No go for the Fair Workweek bill

The Fair Workweek bill is dead. 

The Colorado House Business Affairs & Labor Committee rejected House Bill 1118, Fair Workweek Employment Standards, on an 8-2 vote Thursday. If it had become law, retail and restaurant workers, especially, would get their schedules two weeks in advance so they could better plan their private lives. Opponents argued that such workers thrive on flexible schedules and want the ability to swap out at the last minute.

Wispy clouds over the State Capitol as the legislative session opens in the House of Representatives in the Senate chambers Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

After testimony from dozens of restaurant and small business owners the first time the bill was heard in committee, the prime sponsors dropped all amendments and just asked for a vote. 

“We were willing to change the business size for coverage. We were willing to push out implementation. We were willing to offer phase-ins. We were willing to scale back on enforcement. We were willing to make changes and drop certain definitions and more. The list went on,” Rep. Emily Sirota, D-Denver, said during the committee meeting.

“Unfortunately,” she added, “what we heard from the committee is that unless we remove protections for all restaurant workers from this bill completely, we don’t have the votes to move this bill forward. And that’s just something we can’t do today.”

Other pending labor bills:

➔ Ensure Equal Pay for Equal Work bill moved forward. Hammering out the unintended results of the state’s wage transparency law, the updated Senate Bill 105 passed out of committee Tuesday. >> Background

➔ Redefining workplace harassment. The Protecting Opportunities and Workers’ Rights Act, or Senate Bill 172, has Democrats taking another go at redefining the term “harassment.” It’s not just about the “creation of a hostile work environment,” the bill proposes. The Colorado Chamber of Commerce is opposed and told CPR News that the language is “too nebulous.” >> CPR News

Colorado job growth minus 4,900 jobs

As Ryan Gedney, the Department of Labor and Employment economist, reminds anyone who follows job numbers regularly, Colorado’s job numbers can change. They get revised each quarter because the data is an estimate. 

And the Bureau of Labor Statistics just revised the state’s third-quarter job growth downward. Between July and September, there were an average of 4,900 fewer jobs than previously reported, according to the BLS Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.

“Keep in mind that these reports are simply estimates of what we think may happen during benchmark revisions and that the official benchmark estimates will come out March 13,” Gedney said about the BLS update from late February.

That still puts the state at 2,903,800 nonfarm payroll jobs as of December, or an overall job-growth rate of 3.2% in 2022. >> Report

Other working bits

➔ CSU Pueblo gets $3 million grant to improve broadband equity. The grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration is part of the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program to help citizens with language barriers learn how to use the internet safely. CSU Pueblo’s Adelante Connect program will use the funds to assess the digital ecosystem and then improve broadband capacity at its Watertower Place campus. The effort is part of the federal Internet for All initiative to help underserved communities get connected. >> More 

Signs of a good snow year cling to the Space Station gas station sign, Feb. 2, 2023, in Steamboat Springs. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

➔ Colorado’s gas prices are high, but not highest. This may be a shocker to anyone who’s filled up recently but according to AAA, the average cost of a gallon of regular gas in Colorado fell 8 cents in the past week to $4.01 as of Friday. That’s well above the national average of $3.39, though. But compared to other states, Colorado ranked fifth for highest gas prices. Hawaii was in the lead at $4.87, with California just 4 cents lower. >> AAA gas price tracker

➔ Launch tips for women and nonbinary entrepreneurs. The Ladies Who Launch organization is hosting a Denver event at 6 p.m. on March 29 to discuss the always-elusive startup need: finding capital. CEOs from Havenly and NextDoor are on the agenda. >> Register

➔ Two Colorado woman-owned breweries among Yelp’s top 3. Rock Cut Brewing Company of Estes Park ranked second while New Belgium Brewing of Fort Collins ranked third in a list from Yelp that picked the top 25 breweries identified as women-owned. A Florida brewer took first. Rock Cut was founded by college friends Tracy Goodemote and Matthew Heiser, while New Belgium, which was cofounded by Kim Jordan and Jeff Lebesch. >> See list **UPDATE** While Rock Cut had a female owner in the past (that would be former owner Kirby Nelson-Hazelton), Goodemote and Heiser identify as males. Heiser is now the owner, according to Nelson-Hazelton. Apologies for the mistake!

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More Sun economy stories

  • The $41 million refund from the Broncos sale. Seven counties and 40 municipalities helped fund the Broncos stadium until it found a buyer. Here’s what some are doing with the refund, reports Tatiana Flowers. >> Read 
  • Worker shortage for adult day programs. Reporter Jennifer Brown found another niche struggling to find help: Day programs for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Medicaid dollars are available but Medicaid rates to pay workers are pretty low, at $15 for the base wage. >> Read
  • Nonprofits face the COVID aftermath, as federal funds run out. Employee turnover was brutal at FISH, a Broomfield nonprofit that provides food and housing to those in need. Now they’re looking for new financial support as pandemic relief has run out, reports Monte Whaley. >> Read 
  • Capping the cost of EpiPens in Colorado. The epinephrine autoinjectors go for hundreds of dollars at local drugstores. A new bill would cap out-of-pocket copays to $60 for a two-pack. Helen Santoro has more. >> Read

Thanks for sticking with me for this week’s report. As always, share your 2 cents on how the economy is keeping you down or helping you up at ~ tamara 

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Tamara Chuang writes about Colorado business and the local economy for The Colorado Sun, which she cofounded in 2018 with a mission to make sure quality local journalism is a sustainable business. Her focus on the economy during the pandemic...