Do Bank Employees' Low Wages Cost The Public?

The labor advocacy organization Committee for Better Banks just released a report that looks at the low, low wages that bank tellers and customer service reps receive, and how that is costing the public money. For more on the report, Robert Siegel speaks with Brigid Flaherty, organizing director of the Alliance for a Greater New York, one of the coalition members of the committee.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A few years ago, bank pay was a contentious issue. The financial crisis led Washington to bail out banks that did not hesitate to pay out lavish bonuses, arguably, with taxpayer dollars. The focus was on what people make at the very top of the financial sector then.

Well, now from the University of California Berkeley Labor Center come numbers about pay at the bottom of the financial sector. And federal dollars figure once again, not because the pay is high but because it's so low that tellers and customer service reps often need public assistance. Those numbers are for a study conducted by the Committee for Better Banks.

Brigid Flaherty is organizing director of one of the New York organizations, labor advocacy groups that belong to that committee, the Alliance for a Greater New York, and she joins us from there. Welcome to the program.

BRIGID FLAHERTY: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: What did the Berkeley Labor Center estimate as how much money frontline bank workers collect in various kinds of assistance?

FLAHERTY: In New York state, what we found is about one out of three bank tellers are receiving some form of public assistance in New York state, which is actually costing the state around $120 million.

SIEGEL: And nationwide, extrapolating from that, I guess Berkeley comes up with almost $900 million.

FLAHERTY: Yep. Exactly.

SIEGEL: In what kinds of programs?

FLAHERTY: We're looking at things like Medicaid and food stamps, as well as different forms of health care.

SIEGEL: And this adds up. What is your group asking for? For banks to raise pay so that people don't need these programs? Or banks to pay higher taxes so they can defray the cost of the public compensating for low pay? What do you want?

FLAHERTY: Well, what we're finding is that there's really sort of a tale of two banking industries. The survey that we conducted with about 200 bank workers really showed that there's these high-paid executives, like you were saying, that get paid millions of dollars in bonuses, and then there are these struggling regular workers who are seeing their pay get cut. They're seeing their hours get cut. And really, we know that the banks have the money to pay their workers a fair wage with benefits.

SIEGEL: How much do, say, bank tellers in New York City make?

FLAHERTY: So on average, they make around $11 an hour, which yearly comes out to about $14,000 a year.

SIEGEL: That's very tough to live with in New York City. You might be able to make ends meet, though, in some other parts of the country on that.

FLAHERTY: Well, what we're seeing is actually the shipping of jobs outside of New York City, where there's already - they're already low-paid workers here. And they're moving them into teller jobs and different sort of back office I.T. jobs to places like Delaware and Florida, where they're paying even lower wages.

SIEGEL: How much of the problem for bank tellers is the ATM? I mean, while I certainly sympathize with the bank teller who is automated out of a job, there is some convenience to getting to a machine to withdraw money and not having to wait on a bank teller.

FLAHERTY: You know, what you're seeing now is not just ATMs. But in New York, Bank of America has introduced what's called a video teller. So you're speaking to a screen and there's a person who is a call center worker in one of the states that I mentioned, like Delaware and like Ohio and Florida, and these people are facing deplorable working conditions, stuck in a call center where some of them don't get any breaks. There is a way in which that we have to think about what is comfort. Even if you get a sort of shorter line, there is still a worker who is being impacted by this.

SIEGEL: Bridgid Flaherty of ALIGN, the Alliance for a Greater New York, thanks for talking with us.

Thank you very much for having me.

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