Having a hard time paying your bills each month? There’s a growing chance that your employer wants to help, and not just by giving you a regular paycheck. For years, companies have tried to convince employees to improve their physical health. Now, U.S. companies are increasingly pushing workers to also improve their personal finances and offering more robust advice to help them do so.

Here’s where it gets juicy: Some employers are paying workers extra for participating in the voluntary finance programs, whether they are senior managers or call center assistants. Atlanta-based SunTrust, one of the nation’s biggest banks, offers each of its 23,000 employees up to $1,000 to take part in its own program, called Momentum onUp. And while SunTrust’s offer is unusually generous, it’s not alone in doling out cash for financial wellness or pushing to help employees get their financial houses in order. A number of rival programs also exist. “I think the competitive job market is driving it,” said Brian Ford, who designed the program at SunTrust.

‘You know, is that too personal?’

The bank markets its program to other employers, without a mark-up for profit, according to SunTrust. About 100 companies have signed up for it, from Home Depot to Delta Air Lines and smaller businesses. A third of them offer incentives of at least $100 to employees who participate, according to Ford. Such enticements were almost nonexistent five years ago, he said.

Some employers see such programs as a way to both boost job performance and show employees they care. Gas South, a natural gas marketer, pays up to $200 to workers — many of them call center employees — who participate in a financial wellness program offered through the company. “We have lots of members here that struggle with their finances,” said chief executive Kevin Greiner. “When they come to work each day worrying about how they are going to pay the next bill, it means that they come to work not as ready to do what they need to do.” “We do see it as having a very direct financial benefit not just to the team member, but to our company overall.”

But a worker’s personal finances also can be a sensitive issue, Greiner said. “I think a lot of companies will say, ‘You know, is that too personal?’”

‘We’re going to teach you how to be a rock star saver’

SunTrust chief executive Bill Rogers said he wanted the financial services company to focus on helping Americans reduce their financial stress. Then someone on his team suggested starting with the company’s own workforce. A survey of SunTrust employees resulted in depressing news: 40 percent said they were under financial stress. “What it was for us was a call to action,” Rogers said.

The Momentum onUp program focuses on some basic steps, including opening an emergency savings account, curtailing debt and improving credit scores. Participation in SunTrust’s program often includes gatherings and at-home activities spread out over several months. “We are going to teach you how to be a rock star saver,”Ford recently told a roomful of Atlanta warehouse workers at Empire Distributors, which has operations in Colorado and three Southern states.

The company scheduled on-the-clock rallies for its 1,600 workers, hoping to encourage them to voluntarily take part in the full program. Early in the session, Ford asks questions. What do you value most in life? What grade would you give yourself on your financial knowledge?

Gerald Johnson, a 62 year old who works on an Empire receiving dock, said he saves for retirement and regularly brings lunch from home. But he figures the financial lessons are needed. “You’ve got a lot of employees who live paycheck to paycheck. Once upon a time, I did,” he said. “We all need some kind of guidance.”

‘It’s frustrating.’

Ford said he’s learned that people in every demographic and every income level face financial stress. Consumer expert Clark Howard praised the program’s concept when he heard a description. “I think it is fantastic,” he said, particularly if employers offer tangible financial incentives to boost employee participation. “This fits totally in that category of financial self interest for an employer,” he said. “The one thing I would be wary of is if anything turns to be about particular product pitches instead of giving ideas about how to get your own spending under control and set goals.”

SunTrust says it doesn’t use the Momentum onUp program to market its own products, and that employees’ financial information remains confidential.

For years, many U.S. employers have offered incentives for employees to get health screenings or to take part in fitness program. The bet is that a healthier workforce limits increases in employers’ healthcare costs. Many companies also offer to match employee contributions to 401(k) retirement accounts.

Employers often saw those moves as a way to recruit new hires or hold on longer to existing employees. Now, some of that same thinking is pushing companies to go far beyond lunch-and-learn personal finance programs, broad retirement planning sessions or employee assistance programs that got little participation. About 35 percent of employers now provide employees with financial advice online, compared to only 19 percent in 2014, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. In a separate survey, Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health found about a fifth of employers provide financial incentives for financial fitness programs or challenges. But it still isn’t always easy to get workers to participate.

Willy’s Mexicana Grill, an Atlanta-based chain with 32 restaurants, piloted a financial wellness program for 90 general managers and assistant managers. Few people took part, even with an offer of $100 for participants. “It’s frustrating,” president J.C. Garcia said. Still, he said he expects to come up with new incentives and find a way to spread the program to the rest of the chain’s 650 employees early next year. Hopefully, Garcia said, employees will hear the message. “We want to make sure you understand we care about you all the time, not just when you are work.”

Read more at Atlanta Journal Constitution