by Dave Johnson
Back to (our) Future
The manager instructed her to push accounts but not to tell the customers about the downfalls and fees of new accounts. “Make them read the paperwork.” She replied, “But you know no one ever reads the paperwork.” His response: “Exactly.”
You might have heard that Wells Fargo Bank was busted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for opening millions of fraudulent accounts – ruining customer credit scores and finances to rack up profits from big fees – and had to pay a $185 million fine.
You might have heard that the bank said management didn’t know about the 1.5 million to 2 million fraudulent accounts that were racking up big profits, gave the head of the division responsible for those accounts a $125 million bonus, blamed low-level employees and fired more than 5,000 of them. Now those former employees have the words “ethics” and “fraud” on their records.
The untold story is how Wells Fargo – and other banks – used job insecurity, poverty-level wages, extreme sales quotas and high pressure as financial incentives to fraudulently open accounts for customers on which the bank then profited from fees and penalties. And then the banks blamed the very low-level workers on whom they had imposed extreme sales quotas.
So banks profit from low wages and job insecurity in more ways than the obvious. They don’t just pocket the wage differential; they use the poverty-level wages and job insecurity to force employees to do unethical things they couldn’t otherwise get them to do.
Focus On Selling, Not Customer Needs
On a Monday conference call organized by the Committee for Better Banks, former bank employees described an industry culture of pressure and fear using “sales quotas” to force low-wage employees to rip off customers.
On the call, Khalid Taha, a former Wells Fargo personal banker described unreasonable sales goals at the bank. Taha said he and his colleagues were under serious pressure to meet sales goals every day. They were compelled to “prioritize selling rather than focusing on what’s best for customer needs,” he said. They had daily quotas to open new credit card, loan, savings and other accounts. With wages being very low, the strongest incentive was that no workers were being fired for overzealous selling but workers were regularly fired for not meeting sales targets.
Customers were constantly complaining that they can’t afford fees. Employees were instructed to sell savings accounts as if this solved the problem. But opening savings accounts required an auto transfer of funds from the checking account to savings, resulting in less money in the checking account, so customers are then are hit with overdraft fees.
“Work Them Like Dogs”
Julie Miller had been a branch manager of a Wells Fargo in Allentown, Pennsylvania. She had worked in banks for 20 years. She said that Walls Fargo called branch managers “store managers” and set “sales goals.” She said the sales goal structure and the pressure came from all levels. Describing a culture of harassment and fear when employees don’t meet the set goals, she said she was “instructed by Wells Fargo to increase branch sales by more than 35 percent each year.” Because Allentown was not a large community, “It could only come from the customer base,” she said. They were told to “sell, sell, sell” at the cost of honest advice, and if employees didn’t meet the goals, she said she was told to write them up or terminate them.
To meet goals, they would churn, which meant to open new accounts, Miller said. When they didn’t meet the goals, she said she was told to “work them like dogs if you have to, or make it up yourself.”
Cassuandra Plummer had worked in retail banking for seven years. Her most recent job was as a teller at TD Bank. She said the sales goals made it nearly impossible to help customers find products that work for them. “At my branch it was the norm to disregard our customer needs and only focus on sales,” she said.
Plummer said the manager instructed her to push accounts but not tell the customers about the downfalls and fees of new accounts. “Make them read the paperwork,” she recalled the manager saying. She replied, “But you know no one ever reads the paperwork.” His response: “Exactly.”
“There Is No Way That 5,000 Workers Acted Individually”
Shane Larson, legislative director at Communications Workers of America (CWA) said he is trying to get Congress and regulators to pay attention to this issue at a Senate Banking Committee hearing Tuesday. “Wells Fargo trying to blame the 5,000 workers they fired,” Larson said. “There is no way that 5,000 workers acted individually.”
Larson said the decision was made to not pay workers a living wage, then create financial incentives to push these accounts by ruthlessly enforcing sales goals on the workers.
He pointed out that while this is not contained to Wells Fargo and is industry-wide, there are banks that don’t rely on predatory sales goals.
These predatory sales goals harm workers and harm consumers as well. CWA and a coalition are raising questions about how Wall Street and big banks operate in our economy today. This is the origin of the Take On Wall Street campaign to draw attention to the practices of big banks and Wall Street.
The Only Way To Protect People Is To Ensure That Bank Workers Have Good Jobs
Finally, Deb Axt, the co-executive director of Make the Road New York and Make the Road Action said her organization and its 30,000 largely Latino members in New York and Long Island have been “speaking out for years now that all these banks have been forcing employees to choose between making a living or treating customers the way they want to.” Customers are in need of financial advice and support, but the banks are using job insecurity as a way to force people to ruin neighbors’ and customers’ finances, she said. “The CEO blamed 5,300 mothers and fathers, and gave the executive in charge a $125 million golden parachute.” Instead, she said, the CEO needs to go, and the people on the front line need a share of the profits.
Right now the employee’s choice is between making a living, and treating customers the way they should be treated” “The only way to protect people is to ensure that bank workers have good jobs.”
Does This Sound Somehow familiar?
Summary: Executives at big corporations reap big profits from a rigged system. They use job insecurity and poverty wages to force employees to do things that hurt customer (and societal) interests, then blame the employees if the corporation gets busted for it. Those at the top reap astonishing amounts of money for themselves. This has become such a familiar story because if government does anything at all it imposes a modest fine that comes out of shareholder pockets without holding executives accountable. The executives laugh all the wayto from the bank and move on to the next scam.
The answer is good pay, job security and respect on the job for regular, working Americans. In a country run by We the People, shouldn’t that be a baseline?
The Committee for Better Banks
Check out the Committee for Better Banks. It is “a coalition of bank workers, community and consumer advocacy groups, and labor organizations coming together to improve conditions in the bank industry. They work for just wages, career paths, and job security for front-line bank workers.” On Twitter follow @ForBetterBanks