One of America’s biggest banks is going to be protested by an unlikely group on Monday: its employees.
Workers at Wells Fargo and their supporters are to gather in front of the bank’s corporate office in Minneapolis to protest the bank’s alleged predatory practice – mainly the sales quotas imposed on some of its workers.
The quotas, first exposed in a lawsuit filed by a long-term Wells Fargo customer, David Douglas, have led to at least 30 employees opening duplicate accounts, sometimes without customers’ knowledge, in order to inflate their sales numbers. The 30 employees have been fired, according to the Los Angeles Times. The quotas, however, persist.
“When I started and was really struggling with meeting my quota, a few of my co-workers approached me and said: ‘Oh, you are lucky. They reduced the sale quotas’,” Khalid Taha, 27, who works as a personal banker in San Diego, California, told the Guardian. Taha started working for Wells Fargo in November 2013. In 2013, the sales quota for personal bankers like him was to make 20 sales per day, he said. That means bankers had to sell 20 products, such as a new account, overdraft insurance or travel insurance.
“I am not sure how that’s possible within an eight-hour day of work. Pretty much every customer takes an hour,” said Taha. Then, beginning in 2014, “the sales goal dropped to 15 products a day, which is still unreasonable. You don’t sell more than a product per customer. You can, but it’s not that easy. And most of our customers are current customers. They already have several products.”
Taha pointed out that customers who visit the bank often just want to get a statement, check their balance, or change their address.
“These are all of the services we are required to do as well. That’s a challenge for us because we open our doors from 9am to 6pm at my branch – and that’s for both my sales and my customer service goals,” he said.
The bank insists that customers are not forced to buy products they don’t use or need.
“We place a high priority on ethical business practices and a culture of doing what is best for our customers. It is in Wells Fargo’s best interest for customers to purchase only the products they need and benefit from – that’s what keeps them coming back for more for a lifelong relationship,” Richele Messick, the bank’s spokeswoman, told the Guardian in an email.
“It is not in Wells Fargo’s best interest for customers to purchase products and services they don’t use or need.”
Wells Fargo employees insist that even if the quotas have been reduced, little has changed since 2013.
“Nothing has changed,” said Michael Lewis, 46, who works as a financial crime specialist at Wells Fargo in Chandler, Arizona. Lewis has worked for the bank for three years and is one of the people who handle calls disputing charges and fees accrued by the bank’s customers.
“Basically, what I do all day is look at people’s bank statements,” he said. “I have kind of an unique experience knowing how America spends its money and knowing how broke everyone is.”
While Lewis has no quotas to fill himself, he said he is affected by those imposed on the personal bankers.
“It does affect me in the sense that [the customers] will call and dispute an internal charge – like a travel insurance charge – that they never signed up for, and then we will have to address that,” he said. “People claim that they have been signed up for bank services that they never agreed to, like overdraft protection.”
Lewis has “no concrete proof” that bankers are signing up customers for these services without their knowledge in order to meet the quotas, but “that is the assumption”, he said.
A number of Lewis’s coworkers at the call center have previously worked at the banks and were subject to the quotas. “What I see a lot is a sense of relief that they have made it out of the bank,” said Lewis.
Back in 2013, when the reports of quotas and their effect on the behavior of tellers first came to lights, Wells Fargo created an ethics program office to “look at existing programs across the company to ensure consistency and a holistic approach”.
The bank, the fourth largest in the US by assets, would not say what the creation of this office had accomplished, whether the quotas are still an issue nor whether the quotas had changed.
“Sales are just one part of our goals, which also include customer experience and ethical behavior,” Messick said. “Goals continually evolve and we regularly monitor and test our goals to ensure they are appropriate and drive behaviors that are in the best interest of customers.”
On Monday, Taha will join other bank workers from the country’s biggest banks in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis-St Paul in Minnesota. The workers plan on holding a rally in front of the bank’s corporate office and demand a meeting with the bank’s executives to share their concerns around predatory practices and sales quotas.
“We encourage all of our team members to talk to their managers, participate in the annual team member connection survey, speak to their HR representatives, and use other available channels – including confidential ethics lines – to contribute to a constructive dialogue about the team member experience at Wells Fargo,” Messick said.
Since December 2013, the workers have been collecting signatures on a petition calling for an end to sales goals. The workers plan to deliver the petition, which has a little over 10,000 signatures so far, on Monday. Among their other demands are better pay and full-time work.
Living paycheck to paycheck
Prior to working at Wells Fargo, Lewis worked – in a similar capacity – at American Express for almost 10 years. By the end, he was earning almost $75,000 a year.
“One day, I was asked to go to India and train people there to do my job,” he said. Three months later, he came back and about half of his team – 15 people – got laid off, he said. Frustrated, Lewis quit and was soon hired by Wells Fargo.
“And now I am making half the money that I was at American Express,” he said. Working full time and earning $17.10 an hour, he makes about $35,000 a year. “I live paycheck to paycheck.”
The bank says that its workers’ wages are market-competitive and combine base pay with “a broad array of benefits and career-development opportunities”.
“All of our team members’ compensation levels significantly exceed federal minimums – in fact, all salaries are at least 50% above the federal minimum,” said Messick.
Wells Fargo bank workers are not the only ones struggling to make ends meet. In 2012, average pay for a bank teller was $11.59 an hour. Their median annual income was $24,940, according to US Department of Labor.
Thiago Marques, 26, lives in Newark, New Jersey, and works as a bank teller at Hudson Valley Bank, earning $9.50 an hour.
“The pay is not enough to survive on,” Marques, who lives with his parents, told the Guardian. “At least I am single and have no huge expenses. Imagine being my co-worker, who has two children and has to care for her house.”
To supplement their income, annually bank tellers have collected as much as $105m in food stamps, $250m in earned income tax credits and $534m in Medicaid and children’s health insurance, according to researchers at the labor center at the University of California at Berkeley.
Not all bankers
Despite their reliance on public assistance and low pay, in the eyes of the average American, there is little difference between bank tellers and personal bankers like Taha and those running the banks, said Taha.
“People see us wearing suits and sitting behind our desk and think we are bankers who make millions,” he said. “You don’t see our debt from these suits, from dry cleaning and from these shiny shoes that we are required to purchase from our pockets. We are not making enough to even rent our own house or apartment.”
Taha, who lives with his family, earns about $18 an hour. Compared to the money that he is making for the bank, that’s an “unfair distribution”, he said.
“Sometimes we get all the blame for the bank’s practices, but we are just employees and we are barely making enough to survive,” he said. “We are are just employees and we are following policies of the company.”
Lewis echoed similar sentiments.
“I want America to know that they might have lost their home or they might be getting these extraordinary fees, but it’s not the common workers’ fault,” he said. “It’s the policies that the banks are making that we have to follow.”
This article was written by Jana Kasperkevic in New York, for theguardian.com on Sunday 12th April 2015 14.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010