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For the last eight years of her 30-year career in banking, Melinda worked in the compliance department of a small community bank in Florida. Yet, when we spoke to her last year, she told us she expected to soon lose her job. Her customers were struggling. Many lost their jobs as the coronavirus pandemic sent the economy into a tailspin, and their bills were quickly piling up. In response, they were withdrawing money and closing their accounts left and right. The bank’s initial response to the growing desperation of many customers was to double down on sales and fees to make up for lost profits. She told us, “Everybody’s been asked to contact their customers, offer all the products we have…trying to reach out to new customers to offer products, offer loans.”

But despite possible pending unemployment and the bank’s inability or unwillingness to help out many of its customers, Melinda remained dutifully committed and loyal to her employer. “I really have nothing negative to say. The bank’s been doing a great job…I’d be lying to you if I told you [otherwise]. They just have exceeded on the expectations.”

We met Melinda when, in March and April 2020, our team of researchers at the University of Michigan School of Social Work interviewed 41 bank employees from around the country. We wanted to know what these bank employees made of their experiences during this period. What was the bank doing differently in response to the pandemic’s increasingly abnormal circumstances? Did the actions of the bank alter how they felt about their employers? When we began our interviews, fewer than 100 people were known to have died of Covid-19 in the United States. By the time we ended, the death toll was approaching 60,000. It’s now more than 450,000.

Throughout the period, even as both public health and economic conditions worsened, banks continued to command their employees’ loyalty. This is despite the fact that banks have, for decades, routinely sacrificed employees and customers to protect their bottom lines and continued to do so during the pandemic. From the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020, banks have laid off employees while recording record profits, siphoned money out of customers’ economic stimulus checks to pay debts from overdraft fees, and discriminated against Black and other minority-owned businesses in processing loan applications for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Their actions have contributed to the so-called K-shaped recovery, where the wealthy and well-off continue to prosper, while many lower-income households are experiencing economic disaster.

A popular perception of banks is that everyone who works for them is a member of the wealthy one percent, or close to it. In fact, 30% of the financial services total workforce and 74% of tellers earn less than $15 per hour. Nearly one third of bank tellers receive public welfare benefits like health insurance via Medicaid and assistance with buying food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. A majority of the people we spoke with earned low wages on the industry’s frontlines, working as tellers, customer service representatives, and credit counselors. Oftentimes, the workers were in the same position as their customers. With the government failing to act and nearly half of families unable to afford basic expenses, many low-wage bank employees feared, or experienced themselves, the devastating financial circumstances they are accustomed to witnessing unfold through their customers’ checking accounts.

And, adding to that devastation, they were expected to sanction their customers’ accounts with overdraft and maintenance fees, while at the same time cross-selling them services they might not need. These are not new practices. When bankers at Wells Fargo set up millions of fake accounts on behalf of their customers, they were doing it in response to pressures to meet unrealistic cross-selling goals. These practices take on added maliciousness in a time of economic desperation and illness.

Yet low-wage bank employees, for the most part, continued to identify with the institutions that treated them and their customers so shoddily. This should surprise no one. Institutions structure their employees’ actions through deeply-entrenched norms and well-worn practices, often commandeering their loyalty along with their compliance. Banks raise the stakes on loyalty by frequently requiring employees to sign nondisclosure agreements—legal documents that link employees’ fate with the fate of their employers. These contexts can distort bank employees’ perceptions about how they deserve to be treated.

Time and again, our interviews revealed how employees praised banks for what they perceived as “exceeding expectations” and fulfilling their “civic duty.” Employees praised their employers in the same breath as describing having to use their limited vacation time when they became sick, being forced to work without personal protective equipment, discussing open threats of layoffs, and wondering whether they deserved hazard pay. While doing the bidding of one of the country’s wealthiest industries, banks’ mostly low-wage employees appeared resigned to their fate as essential workers in a global pandemic.

Beatrice, a universal banker in a branch of a national bank in South Carolina, was typical. Yes, she earned $50 more each day during this period, since her bank offered additional pay. However, she needed to use some of that hazard pay to bring her own soap and hand sanitizer to work and purchase her own masks. Moreover, she and her family were at high medical risk. “It’s almost more intellectually stressful than what we’re used to, and then just going home every night. Well, did I come in contact with someone today that has it? It’s just exhausting.” Still, she told us, she is grateful for the employment opportunity. “With the extra money that they’re giving us to work, it’s kind of hard to say no to wanting to work every day.”

The conditions of working during the pandemic make it obvious that workers must collectively demand more for their labor than the low price of survival. True, just having a job can feel like solace amidst a deep economic crisis and widespread devastation, and the most minimal benefit can feel generous when your worth has been consistently devalued. But that’s not enough. In this new year, we must fight for the rights of essential workers and ensure that they are cared for, protected, and treated with dignity—both during the pandemic and into the future. And, we should all begin to expect and demand better pay and benefits than many employers often provide. But first, we need to convince workers themselves that they deserve better.


Terri Friedline is an associate professor of social work at the University of Michigan and author of the book, Banking on a Revolution: Why Financial Technology Won’t Save a Broken System. Follow @TerriFriedline

Anna K. Wood is a joint PhD student in social work and sociology at the University of Michigan, and a senior consulting researcher at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Follow @AKW_SocioloWork