Gov. Quinn signs payroll cards bill into law

Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law on Wednesday a bill that will regulate payroll cards, allowing employers to use them as long as they don't make them a condition of employment.

"We don't want unfair, artificial fees to be attached to those payroll cards. We don't want to have policies that are unfair," said Quinn, who signed the bill at the headquarters of Community Organizing and Family Issues, a nonprofit that organizes parents and lobbied for the bill in Springfield.

Under former Illinois law, employers were required to pay employees via check or direct deposit. The law made no mention of payroll cards, which operate like debit cards, putting them in a gray area.

The new law requires employers to inform workers that enrollment is voluntary, provide them an itemized list of fees and offer them a paper check option or direct deposit. The bill also ensures workers would get free access to their wages once pay per pay period.

Initially, the bill banned inactivity fees, but it was amended to allow fees after one year of inactivity. Lawmakers also allowed fees for declined transactions. Workers get two free per month, but "commercially reasonable fees" can be charged after that.

Nationwide, an increasing number of employers, especially those in low-wage industries like retail and fast food, are turning to the cards, which look like debit cards, in lieu of paychecks.

Businesses prefer the cards because they save $2.75 each time they electronically load the card instead of cutting a check, according to Aite Group, a Boston-based research and consulting firm.

But workers say using payroll cards means getting socked with fees, including some that aren't disclosed, for everything from accessing their money to checking balances.

"Many of the charges were hidden," said Maria Toribio, 33, whose husband gets paid via a payroll card. Its fees, she said, gobbled up money for a day's worth of food.

Some workers have quickly run up fees of several hundred dollars over a year's time.

Many of the workers who are paid via payroll cards earn wages that hover $8.25 per hour, the state's minimum wage.

The office of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, which found that fees on payroll cards range from 50 cents to $5, was behind the push for the legislation.

"When we looked, we learned that the fees in these payroll cards were both excessive as well as unfair," Madigan said.

Madigan said it was an "uphill battle" to get the bill passed through the General Assembly. But with the new law, she said, "People won't have to pay to get their pay."