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HUECU, and its members, go mobile

By MICHAEL KIELSTRA

The Harvard University Employees’ Credit Union operates in a sort of limbo between Harvard and not-Harvard. It is a separate organization, and the Harvard Management Corporation cannot order it to do anything, but all its employees have @harvard.edu email addresses. Technically, as Tom Montilli, executive vice-president and chief experience officer at HUECU, explained, the Credit Union leases all its employees from Harvard: Harvard provides payroll and benefits, and the Credit Union pays all the costs. The effect is to produce an institution with very close ties to the Harvard community specifically—you must be either a Harvard affiliate or a relative of a current member to apply for membership—but still outside the administration. The Independent contacted them to ask about how they were reacting to the spread of COVID-19 in the Harvard community.

Although they have closed their branches in Charlestown, Longwood, and Somerville, HUECU’s headquarters in Harvard Square will remain open for business, as will the branch in Massachusetts General Hospital. This, according to Montilli, is because the currently-closed branches are in buildings which themselves have been closed by their owners: Massachusetts General Hospital, the T. H. Chan School of Public Health, and Partners HealthCare respectively. In fact, this has not caused much disruption: Montilli explains,“The branches are closing as a result of those facilities closing, so those people who would normally be in that facility have been told to stay home.” HUECU’s employees can’t get inside their branches, but their customers can’t either, so it all works out.

The focus, therefore, is on mobility and use of technology. Earlier in the year, before COVID-19 came on the scene, HUECU moved to a new online and mobile banking system. Students with accounts may have noticed the brightly-colored pamphlets delivered to their Harvard mailing addresses. Montilli feels that this is useful for two reasons: first, “The new system is easier for us to support remotely, so that we have a lot more capability to assist members from the backend,” and second, “the new system is a lot more intuitive than the old system.” Montilli even goes so far as to say that “There’s very few things we can’t do remotely”.

He is equally optimistic about the employees’ situation. When I asked him if anything had surprised him about the transition, the first thing he mentioned was how easily the HUECU team took to working from home, with no “significant delays or interruptions in communications.” Office social life survived the migration as well. “Employees are scheduling Zoom hangouts after work,” Montilli says, and he mentions new Slack channels for “just people posting photos of their pets, their work-from-home daily life.” Perhaps a man who describes the banking sector as “a web of… different players and vendors who work together” could have seen it coming, but HUECU has not had much difficulty in becoming almost a completely remote operation.

The customers, however, are not moving in quite the same way. Although we might expect to see an uptick in the use of internet banking, that is not in fact what has been happening. “We typically do a lot of our business through the online channel,” says Montilli, “but there hasn’t been anything really significant that’s changed in the past couple of weeks. We are doing more business over the phone… and more people [are] contacting us through electronic communications [emails or secure online messages], so our support center’s been very busy.” Pretty much everyone who is comfortable using online banking was already using it before COVID-19, and those who are not comfortable are calling or sending emails. Physical access to bank resources is also a priority: one of the first things Montilli and his fellow executives did was to waive ATM fees, to reduce the cost to people who, in his words, “aren’t where they normally would be.” HUECU may be a remote, web-based operation, but to some of its customers cash is still king.

Maintaining access to currency can only go so far. “I think everybody feels good that we’re going to be here,” says Montilli. “I think what we’re hearing more from people now is there’s a growing concern about what this is going to mean for them financially.” In the eyes of its members, the Credit Union is solid, but even the most solid credit union can worry you if you owe it money. To help with this, HUECU has rolled out a bevy of new policies. They’re waiving more than ATM fees: as Montilli explains, “We have a process that’s always been in place where, if a member needs to, at any point, they can skip a payment on their loan without any kind of penalty. That’s an option that usually carries a fee. We’re waiving the fee for that. Normally you can only take advantage of that option once in a twelve-month period; if somebody’s already done it in the past twelve months, we’re giving them the option to do it again.” Representatives have also been re-trained to ensure that they are fully aware of all the options they can offer members, and Montilli expects use of the GreenPath Financial Wellness Program, offering free debt counseling and debt management among other things, to increase.

Financial wellness and education can only go so far. Right now, it would appear, Montilli has three problems: the remote support center is under strain, many of the members are in bad shape financially, and branches, which would otherwise have supported employees, have had to close. He believes he has been able to solve all of these at once. Workers who would otherwise have staffed physical desks have been sent to the call center, where they do “one-on-one outreach” to members who ask for help. Montilli stresses this as part of his strategy: when I ask if HUECU is offering any specific financial aid to its members, he uses the phrase “case-by-case basis” twice and describes the process as “talking to the member, understanding what it is specifically that they’re experiencing, and finding something that can help their situation.” This goes beyond just emailing out pamphlets on debt consolidation. Although he does not list them, Montilli mentions that there are “definitely other things that we can do” beyond what he has mentioned.

This sort of attitude does not seem typical for a bank, and, indeed, HUECU does not see itself as one. Its slogan, in the corner of its website, proudly proclaims it to be “Not a bank. A benefit.” “I think,” says Montilli, “this is one of those times when we really remember what we’re here for. We’re a big believer that we’re a resource and a benefit for this community that we serve. We immediately pivot towards ‘OK, how are we going to be able to help?’ We understand that people are going to be significantly impacted, the community is going to be significantly impacted, and we want to put ourselves in a position to help any way that we can.”

Disclosure: The author has a small account open with HUECU and does his daily banking through them.

Illustration by Natalie Sicher ’21. 

Michael Kielstra ‘22 (pmkielstra@college.harvard.edu) writes News for the Indy.