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Reuters/Eduardo Munoz
Imperfect system.
BANKERS AGAINST BANKS

Some of the people who hate America’s Big Banks the most work in them every day

Elizabeth Winkler
By Elizabeth Winkler

“It is heartbreaking to think that I was better off when I was 25 than now at 63.”

Brenda Goins, a relationship manager at US Bank, is one of hundreds of bank workers who joined together in Los Angeles last month to protest working conditions in the banking industry. A member of the Committee for Better Banks, a national coalition of bank workers, Goins was one of the workers who occupied the lobby of Wells Fargo’s LA regional headquarters, where the group attempted to meet with executives and delivered a petition of over 11,000 signatures to John Stumpf, CEO of Wells Fargo.

In a press release posted online by the Committee, Goins notes that her decades of experience in the banking industry have not ensured her dignity or financial security. Such sentiments were echoed by Khalid Taha, a 27-year-old personal banker at Wells Fargo, also quoted in the release. Taha says that bank employees involved in the protests are motivated by a variety of factors, including wage potential and mental health. “Since I started working at Wells two years ago, my blood pressure went up; I started suffering from insomnia and anxiety,” Taha explains. The bankers later marched across town to continue their protest at the Bank of America.

The beginning of the 21st century has been an unmitigated public-relations nightmare for America’s banking institutions. Blamed for the financial crisis in 2008, large banks and those who lead them are some of this generation’s biggest villains. But what about the people who work many floors below the corner suites: the men and women who interact directly with customers, file the deposit slips and approve small-time loans?

In fact, these front-line bank workers have become the latest group to denounce the practices of America’s big banks. While bank executives take home compensation in the tens of millions of dollars, 74% of bank tellers in America earn less than $15 per hour, according to the National Employment Law Project.

“Since I started working at Wells two years ago, my blood pressure went up; I started suffering from insomnia and anxiety.”

But money is only the tip of the iceberg. Workers also complain of a high-stress environment stemming from predatory banking practices that CEOs had vowed to discontinue in the post-crisis era. Members of the Committee for Better Banks claim that existing sales models pressure them to push predatory financial products on customers, often in communities that are still struggling to recover from the financial crisis. If they fail to meet sales quotas, they risk losing their jobs. The coalition’s petition makes the case that financial institutions cheat both sides of the industry—workers and consumers.

Reuben Traite, spokesperson for the Committee on Better Banks, tells Quartz, “Workers and community members will not stop until Wells changes its excessive sales goals and pressure on employees to meet extremely high sales quotas.”

Earlier this year, the city of Los Angeles sued Wells Fargo for unlawful and fraudulent conduct. The complaint cited rigid sales quotas that drive workers to engage in “unfair, unlawful and fraudulent conduct.” The lawsuit was backed up by the findings of an independent investigation by The Los Angeles Times in 2013. Meanwhile, bank workers at Wells Fargo and US Bank in St. Paul, Minnesota, launched their own protest in September, backed by local labor leaders, alleging low wages and discriminatory hiring practices.

An April 2015 study of bank workers by the Center for Popular Democracy, a liberal-leaning nonprofit, lends further credence to these claims. According to the study, higher-ups at the big five banks bully struggling, low-level employees into practices such as selling high-interest loans and unnecessary insurance products. It’s not surprising that employees who are already underpaid and overworked do not appreciate being coerced into compromising their integrity as well.

The unethical practices that undermine job security for workers are the same ones that threaten the financial security of consumers. Campaigning against bank conglomerates across America, workers and activists seek to restructure the sales model to “create positive incentives for meeting customer service needs,” according to the Committee for Better Banks press release, as well as a fair share of the profits they create, and access to full-time, stable employment.

The unethical practices that undermine job security for workers are the same ones that threaten the financial security of consumers.

The movement’s larger aim is to restore some degree of dignity to the banking industry. Though workers cannot reasonably be held responsible for the misconduct of their superiors, they do not relish their association with such a maligned sector.

Workers believe they can help hold their institutions to higher standards. This is a noble aim, although a challenging one. Still, the fact that bank employees are choosing to side with their customers rather than their employers is further evidence of how disconnected many financial institutions are from the interests of the general public. Such protests provide a meaningful contribution to more widespread calls for reform.

Not surprisingly, the banks in question disagree. Asked how Wells Fargo is responding to employees’ grievances, a spokesperson for the bank tells Quartz: “We pride ourselves on creating a great place to work for our team members, including market competitive compensation that combines base pay with a broad array of benefits and career-development opportunities. Investing heavily in team members has been key to our success and customer-centric culture.” She adds that employees’ compensation levels “significantly exceed” the federal minimum, and points out that they have opportunities for salary increases as part of their annual review process.

If bank workers achieve a measure of their aims, they may help to rebuild trust between banks and their customers. They will have done the employers who mistreated them a great service.