New York CNN Business —  

Visa and financial services firm PayActiv are now allowing workers real-time access to earned wages ahead of their normally scheduled pay days.

PayActiv says 200 employers have already signed up to allow their workers to get advances on pay that they have already earned. More than two million employees are eligible. The bulk of those are the 1.4 million employees of Walmart, the nation’s largest private sector employer, which joined late last year.

Here’s how it works: Employees can use a smartphone app to download their money onto a Visa debit or preloaded card, or even a traditional credit card. That also helps workers who do not have access to a traditional checking account.

This offering has been available for almost two years. But in the past workers would likely have to wait until the end of the day, or even the next business day, to access their money.

There is no charge to employers who sign up for the service.

Employees who use the service are charged a $3 fee for a weekly pay period, or a $5 fee for a bi-weekly pay period. The worker is only charged once per pay period, no matter how many times he or she uses the service during that time. There are no fees if the service is not used, and there is also no fee to set up the PayActiv Visa prepaid card.

The real time payments can be important for the workers who discover they need to access their pay to fill their car with gas or buy food for dinner. And it can make a big difference to workers who need money and would otherwise have faced late payment penalties or have been forced to use a high-cost payday lender to cover expenses, said PayActiv founder and CEO Safwan Shah.

“A lot of people get hit by a $35 charge when all they might need is $10. But they need that $10 at the right time,” Shah said.

He added that the firm already processed more than $1 billion in payments in 2018, and that he anticipates a significant expansion of its use this year.

Cecilia Frew, a senior vice president with Visa, said the company is “proud be partnering with PayActiv to offer additional choice and flexibility to employers and employees when managing their financial well-being.”

Nearly half of US workers live paycheck to paycheck, with expense equal to or greater than their pay and with no financial cushion, according to a 2017 study from the Center for Financial Services Innovation. The group found in an earlier survey that financially underserved people in the United States spent $173 billion in interest and fees annually.

Part of that problem can be lack of access to a bank account. A 2015 study by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. found that 15 million US adults get by without any type of bank account.