SMILE Community Action Agency has made a concerted effort in the past year and a half to offer a more in-depth benefits package to employees so that it can become an employer of choice.

SMILE, which stands for St. Martin, Iberia and Lafayette parishes in Louisiana, offers Head Start early education programs in all three parishes as well as other community services with the mission of helping those in need.

Because many SMILE’s 300 employees only work nine months out of the year, the organization faces some unique retirement plan challenges. Many employees don’t make a ton of money and as such, aren’t necessarily as familiar with banks and the benefits banking can have on their financial wellness.

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Another issue SMILE faces is that has an intergenerational workforce. Many of its staff members are baby boomers approaching retirement, but it also has Generation X and millennial employees. “Communication is the main challenge,” says Royal Hill, CEO of SMILE. “Some people like text or email; some want to pick up the phone and call someone.”

SMILE is working on its five-year strategic plan. One of its goals is to go paperless: Have all relevant information either online or sent out electronically. It already allows employees to receive their W-2s and payroll stubs online instead of in paper form.

As part of its task of becoming an employer of choice, SMILE is also looking to revamp its 401(k) plan by assessing what it currently offers and how it administers the plan. Currently, SMILE matches contributions up to 3% of pay. “We’re going to review that. We are trying to get it incrementally to 7% to 10% of pay,” Hill says.

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He adds that SMILE is currently looking at its wage and salary scale to see if it can support that kind of effort. His organization has always advocated for living wages.

“We advocate for those in poverty,” he says, but he is also very aware that his employees don’t make that much more than minimum wage. “How do we stand up and [practice] what we preach?”

The organization recently signed with Kashable to offer loans to staff to keep them from tapping their retirement accounts when they need money over the summer months when they aren’t working.

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The benefit is a group credit product, offered to employees who qualify “based on their tenure on the job, based on the stability of the company and that individual’s position,” says Hill. “Credit score is the last thing they look at as far as eligibility. They mitigate risk by being payroll deducted.”

Kashable’s online term-loan program is offered as a voluntary benefit through employers; the company says it provides disciplined, responsible and easy to manage credit at low rates starting at 6%.

The added bonus of offering these loans to employees is that Kashable reports to the credit bureaus so this is a “way [for employees] to establish credit and certainty. It guarantees a loan will be paid on time because it is payroll deducted,” Hill says. “The majority of folks with blips on their credit pay their bills but they pay them late.”

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Employees using the benefit currently have 24 loans outstanding and the average loan is $900.

SMILE wants to “provide benefits to our staff so that they can … have a benefit packet that would be advantageous to them while not breaking the bank of the organization,” says Hill, and this is one way to do that.

SMILE also is negotiating with its credit union to do brown bag education programs for its employees.

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“The credit union will come in and talk about particular issues of credit worthiness and look at those challenges and also how to utilize their products as well,” Hill said. Through the credit union, SMILE employees are able to get mortgages, loans for cars, boats, RVs and property, he said. “We’re looking to have a one-stop shop as it relates to that and help individuals become prepared to be bankable.”

Paula Aven Gladych is a freelance writer based in Denver.


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