You're Paying $900M A Year To Subsidize Low-Wage Bank Tellers. Why?
December 5, 2013

You hear this all over the place as an excuse to justify poverty wages: "Hey, who ever said flipping burgers was supposed to be a full-time job?" I wonder what excuse they'll come up with to rationalize this Al Jazeera America story:

While employed by the same entity, retail bank workers are worlds apart from those in corporate or high finance. Yet for giant universal banks like Bank of America and Citibank, comprising retail, commercial and investment banking divisions — a model made possible by the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 — the branch locations are a critical point of contact with ordinary Americans. And according to a new advocacy campaign, the underpaid workers in these branches may be the key to a more accountable banking system.

While bank CEOs receive handsome compensation, 39 percent of bank tellers in New York State had to rely on public assistance to stay afloat.

Today, kicking off a week of protests against big banks, the New Day New York Coalition released a report documenting historic levels of inequality in Wall Street’s hometown. The paper reveals that the top 1 percent of income earners take home 40 percent of New York’s total income and that the city’s financial sector was responsible for approximately 45 percent of job losses (affecting some 26,000 workers) in the first half of this year.

While bank CEOs receive handsome compensation — JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon made $21 million in 2012 — 39 percent of bank tellers in New York State had to rely on public assistance to stay afloat.

Low pay, professional veneer

Ryan Filson, a 38-year-old assistant branch manager in New York, started out as a bank teller when he was 18. (He asked that his real name not be used.) “The money I made back then is the same that they’re paying tellers now to start: $10! And the workload is so different. Tellers have a harder job today than I ever saw,” he said, referring to time-intensive verification procedures for checks and deposits.

In 2010 the national median salary for tellers was $24,100, or just over $11 per hour. But tellers and other retail staff are often required to purchase suits and look the part of professional workers. They also face pressure to meet stringent quotas for referrals and sales of checking and savings accounts, credit cards, loans and mortgages while cultivating relationships with their customers.

“The three women (tellers) I work with all receive public assistance,” Filson said. “I was shocked. (The head teller) shows up for work on time, she has a great personality, she works hard. (With welfare), you have the image of someone lazy collecting a check, so for me, that was eye opening.”

On the corporate side, back-office personnel are paid meager hourly wages, are routinely outsourced and subcontracted and are segregated from analysts and investment bankers in the same company. Large banks often treat support departments as a drain on resources rather than a crucial part of the business.

According to subcontracted back-office workers at a prominent New York bank, clerical, security and technology staff are paid $12 per hour, though their predecessors — direct employees of the corporation before a massive restructuring — were paid $16 to $20 per hour. In the third quarter of this year, the same bank reported earnings of nearly $1 billion. (Those interviewed asked that neither they nor their employer be identified.)

Bank workers also cite job security and whistle-blower protections as pressing concerns. Twice in the recent past, Filson was subject to what he sees as retaliation for reporting suspicious transactions under the Bank Secrecy Act, a law meant to combat money laundering. The first time, his superiors transferred him to a different branch; the second time, his complaint was circulated widely.

“It made me think that during the mortgage crisis, there were probably people who saw things that didn’t seem quite right,” Filson said. “But even if they complained, it probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere.”

Representatives of Wells Fargo and Bank of America would not respond to specific questions, and JPMorgan Chase and the American Bankers Association were unavailable for comment. But Bank of America spokeswoman Tara A. Burke told Al Jazeera in an email, “We work with each employee to support their career development and offer competitive compensation and benefits for employees. We also value their feedback and opinions and routinely create opportunities for ongoing dialogue.”

Burke would neither confirm nor deny that entry-level tellers are paid $10 per hour, a rate advertised in the Wall Street Oasis Company Database.

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