By Eva Sage-Gavin/HR Leadership Columnist
There is a growing awareness
of the challenges facing low-income employees; however,
most still see vast disparities
when it comes to benefits.
Most employees receive paid
sick, vacation and holiday leave
(64 percent, 76 percent and 77
percent, respectively), according
to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,
but among the lowest 10 percent
of earners, those numbers stand
at 27 percent, 41 percent and
40 percent, respectively. With
the emphasis that executives
have placed on health and
wellness, it seems the lack of
access to paid time off makes it
more challenging for low-wage
workers to fully participate.
I turned to a longtime
colleague, Bruce Sherman,
medical director for population
health management for Conduent
HR Services (formerly Xerox)
and chief medical officer for the
National Alliance of Healthcare
Purchaser Coalitions, to help vet
out some of these issues.
Harnett: What are some
obstacles for low-income
Sherman: Perhaps the greatest
issue for the low-wage-worker
population is that they have a
higher prevalence of unhealthy
lifestyle behaviors and chronic
health—than their more
highly paid counterparts. As a
result, they are most likely to
benefit from ongoing access to
affordable healthcare services.
A second challenge is access
to healthcare, especially for
hourly workers. Our research
demonstrated that low-income
employees use about half the
preventive services [compared
to] higher-earning colleagues.
Employers can address this
problem by giving employees
a “health day,” a paid half-day
off employees can use for
H: How can we improve benefits
for low-wage employees?
S: Make healthcare more
affordable and accessible.
Wage-based approaches to
benefit-design subsidies can
help this group significantly.
Many employers have adopted
wage-based premiums, but
if deductibles remain high,
concern regarding out-of-pocket costs can be a significant
deterrent to accessing care.
Employers can also consider
Meeting Needs of Low-Wage Workers
wage-based HRA or HSA
contributions to effectively lower
the net deductible.
H: What can low-income
workers teach us about
S: We can’t assume that what’s
important to us is important
to them. They may have more
foundational and immediate
priorities—such as financial
stress—that may impact their
view of the world, including
workplace performance and
job-security concerns. For those
living paycheck to paycheck,
it’s vital that we appreciate
the importance of predictable
income for these individuals;
just-in-time work scheduling
creates uncertainty and stress.
Finally, don’t confuse reduced
healthcare costs for improved
As I reflect on Sherman’s
insights and the issues facing
low-wage workers, the first step
for HR leaders is to reconsider
how we structure their access to
workplace flexibility, paid leave
and healthcare-benefits design.
These benefits don’t have to be
equal to higher-paid employees,
but they should help them
manage the demands of their
lives and their health.
Carol Harnett is a widely
respected consultant, speaker and
writer in the field of employee
benefits. Follow her on Twitter via
@carolharnett and on her video
blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily.
Send questions or comments to
I recently noticed how
many meetings I was
having with leaders
outside the HR sphere.
There was one with a division president to
discuss a new services strategy and another with
a CMO to talk about strengthening the synergies
between the customer and employee brands.
As I talk to CHROs globally, this is a key shift
from the way many HR leaders were expected
to operate even a handful of years ago. But it
makes sense: The future of work—characterized
by new demands to design seamless employee
and customer experiences, the move toward a
diverse ecosystem of talent, and the growing
belief that people are central to transformation
and strategy—is challenging us to redefine the
traditional HR function.
HR leaders have the chance to step up to that
challenge and role model agile ways of working.
Step broadly. To attract and retain top
talent, companies are appointing employee-experience leaders to co-create consumer-grade,
human-centric experiences. They are designing
cross-functional teams to focus on the entire
candidate, employee and alumni journey.
Employees want a seamless, integrated
experience designed around them—including
the technology they use, the space in which
they work, and the rewards, culture and
opportunities for development that bring out
Step together. Another reason HR leaders
are now working far beyond the boundaries
of traditional HR roles is the rapid rise of an
adaptive workforce that includes contractors,
freelancers, crowdsourced workers and
strategic partners. By some accounts, 36
percent of the U.S. workforce now consists of
freelancers; by 2027, they are expected to be
the majority, though recent Bureau of Labor
Statistics research had that number much lower.
HR Without Boundaries
To harness the power of this new talent
ecosystem, we must closely work together with
departments like legal, strategy and marketing
to tap into new talent pools. We must combine
efforts with finance to understand the bottom-line implications of the new workforce, and
collaborate with risk management to address
issues like intellectual-property risks. And we
must work with IT to ensure security and drive
transparency in workforce performance.
Step in. A recent Gartner survey of CEOs
found that CHROs rank fourth in terms of level
of contribution to digital business initiatives, just
behind CIOs, CFOs and COOs. CHROs can
form a tight partnership with CEOs and CFOs—
what global business advisor Ram Charan calls
the “G3”—to allocate human capital as carefully
as financial capital in a transformational journey.
I personally experienced the expanding
boundaries of our function when one of my prior
roles shifted from executive vice president of HR
to include corporate-affairs responsibilities. It
was an extraordinary opportunity to collaborate
internally and externally and tackle new
opportunities and challenges creatively. What
is different now, however, is the mounting
pressure from new, competitive business and
workforce dynamics to stretch well beyond the
past boundaries of our function.
I challenge us all to step broadly, step
together and step in. Let’s walk a path into the
future, jointly working with others across the
enterprise to meet our company’s greatest goals
with fresh, new boundary-less thinking.
Eva Sage-Gavin is a former CHRO with more
than three decades of experience in Fortune 500
corporations. She currently serves as the senior
managing director for Accenture’s global talent
and organization consulting practice and as
a technology board director. Send questions or
comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.