This story was written by Katie Rose Quandt and originally published on BillMoyers.com.
Front-line workers at our nation’s big banks — tellers, loan interviewers and customer service representatives — are required by their employers to exploit customers, according to a revealing report out today from the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD). Big banks have internal systems of penalties and rewards that entice employees to push subprime loans and credit cards on customers who would be better off without them.
CPD’s report outlines several illegal predatory practices big banks have been caught employing, usually via their front-line workers:
Blatantly discriminatory lending:
In 2011 and 2012, Bank of America and Wells Fargo paid out settlements for charging higher rates and fees to tens of thousands of African American and Hispanic borrowers than to similarly qualified white customers. Minority customers were also more likely to be steered into (more expensive, riskier) subprime mortgages.
Manipulating payment processing to maximize overdraft charges:
When a savings account balance drops too low, the bank charges a hefty overdraft fee on each subsequent purchase. Both Bank of America and US Bank paid settlements for intentionally processing customers’ largest debit card payments first, regardless of chronological order, in order to hit $0 faster and maximize overdraft fees. US Bank was also accused of allowing debit card purchases on zero-balance accounts to go through (and incur overdraft fees), instead of denying the charges upfront.
Forcing sale of unneeded products:
Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase and Citigroup were accused of forcing customers to purchase overpriced property insurance.
Manipulative sales quotas:
Lawsuits show Wells Fargo and Bank of America created incentive programs for employees with the interests of the company — not the customer — in mind. Wells Fargo’s sales quotas encouraged bank workers to steer prime-eligible customers to subprime loans, while falsifying other clients’ income information without their knowledge. Bank of America’s “Hustle” program rewarded quantity over quality, encouraging workers to skip processes and checks intended to protect the borrower.
Instead of cutting back on the risky, unethical practices that led to the Great Recession, the CPD report asserts that big banks have not learned from their mistakes. Bank workers report higher levels of sales pressure in 2013 than in 2008, and most do not have the job security or seniority to simply refuse to hawk credit cards or steer customers into risky financial situations. While the financial sector is turning near-record profits, the average bank teller made just $12.25 an hour in 2013 (a real-dollar decrease from 2007), causing 31 percent of tellers’ families to rely on public assistance. What’s more, 85 percent of these underpaid front-line bank employees are women, and one-third are people of color. Most are in no position to risk losing their job or having their pay docked for stepping out of line.
Several anonymous big bank employees went into detail about how their employers incentivize sales:
An HSBC employee reported that when workers fell short of sales goals, the difference was taken out of their paychecks.
A teller at a major bank said she is expected to sell three new checking, savings, or debit card accounts every day. If she falls short, she gets written up.
Customer service representatives at one major bank’s call-center said everyone is expected to make at least 40 percent of the sales of the top seller. Credit card sales count for extra, encouraging callers to push credit cards on customers who would be better served with checking or savings accounts.
A call-center worker said she offers a credit card to every customer, regardless of whether it would be beneficial. She explained: “If you aren’t offering, you can get marked down — the managers and Quality Analysts listen to your call, and can tell if you aren’t offering.”
“We’re not servicing their needs,” said one front-line worker. “What they want, what they need, isn’t important to us. Selling them a product is … Some of our customers just have their savings, many are just retirees.”
As the report concludes, “Our nation’s big banks are committed to a model that jeopardizes our communities and prevents bank employees from having a voice in their workplace.”