RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The fallout from the banking scandal that engulfed Wells Fargo continues. To recap, bank employees opened up as many as 2 million accounts for customers who didn't want them or didn't even know they existed. Regulators call that fraud, and they hit the bank with penalties totaling $185 million. Wells Fargo says it's now moving forward. It's fired thousands of wrongdoers. Problem solved. Not exactly. NPR's Chris Arnold joins us now for more.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Now, when the news of a banking scandal broke, Chris, the victims seemed to be customers of Wells Fargo. But you've been finding that a lot of employees who say, if anything, they've actually been hurt worse. How can they say that?
ARNOLD: I've been talking to folks, former Wells Fargo employees, who say look, I was doing everything right. I was calling the ethics line. I was not doing anything wrong. And they say, despite doing the right thing, Wells Fargo fired them. And then it did something else. It went beyond that and put a stain on their permanent record that's followed them since they've left Wells Fargo and made it very difficult for them to find jobs, and so this has really hurt their careers.
JEREMY: I specifically said I will not do these things - falsifying signatures, pushing products on people that they didn't need.
ARNOLD: That's Jeremy, who worked in Wells Fargo branches in Los Angeles starting back in 2005. He just wants to use his first name. And he remembers, one night in 2007, he got invited by some branch managers to a Lakers basketball game. And some of them asked him - hey, how come his branch had such good sales numbers?
JEREMY: So I broke it down for them. And I said here's what it is. There's a lot of people in our branch that are doing some shady things.
ARNOLD: That is, hitting their sales numbers by giving customers credit cards or checking accounts that they never asked for. In the bank, that was called gaming your sales numbers.
JEREMY: At the Lakers game, I told the other managers, including the district manager, about the gaming that was going on and how I didn't approve of it. I didn't like it. That was kind of a pivotal moment for me where I realized something was kind of weird going on. I spoke too much. It got back to my manager, and he's like, buddy, what's going on here? My bankers don't game.
ARNOLD: Now, Jeremy says his manager absolutely knew there was shady stuff going on in the office because Jeremy kept telling him about it, especially when his boss would pressure him to push products on customers. At one point, he says the bankers were told to sell 20 products every single day.
JEREMY: I literally took printouts where one of the bankers had over 60 sales. I think there was maybe, like, 20 checking accounts for one person - personal checking accounts. And I said this is gaming. She's your No. 1 salesperson. You want me to be like her? And he says buddy, this is all garbage. This is crap. I don't care about what they're doing. I care what you're doing.
ARNOLD: So Jeremy says he couldn't believe it when, in late 2008, his manager called him into his office and Jeremy says he was told basically he could quit or the bank was going to open an investigation into whether he gave people accounts without their consent. And, he says, he was told there was a good chance that he'd be fired. Jeremy figured this was retribution for his speaking out. He says he was 26 years old, and he just got scared and he quit.
JEREMY: I went to lunch and came back. And I said, no, I'm out of here. I'm done.
ARNOLD: But it wasn't that simple. Jeremy didn't realize it at the time, but Wells Fargo wrote him up on what's called his U5 document. That's like a report card for bankers and brokers, and this put a big red flag on that. And Jeremy soon found that he could not get hired by any other bank. He got plenty of leads. For one in San Francisco, he jumped in his car at 3 o'clock in the morning and drove straight up from LA. Jeremy's wife was about to have a baby, so he really needed this job.
JEREMY: And I'll never forget meeting with this guy, a really nice guy. And he said listen, man. You're exactly what we're looking for. You've got the drive. You've got the motivation. You know, you know the industry. Let's go ahead - let's go through the formalities and get you on the job. I got so excited and called up my wife - looks like we're moving to San Francisco. You know, finally, we're going to have income.
ARNOLD: But then the bank ran a background check, pulled his U5, and Jeremy didn't hear back.
JEREMY: After about a week, finally gave the HR lady a call and said - hey, just wanted to follow up, see what's going on in the process. And she said, I'm sorry. We went with another candidate. This was the lowest point in my life. I get emotional every time I tell this story. I just sat there, hung up the phone. I just cried.
ARNOLD: Jeremy was out of work for six months, living off credit cards. But then, at another job interview, he finally figured it out.
JEREMY: It was a hiring manager. And she brought me outside. And she says listen, I'm not really supposed to say anything because it's an HR issue, but I'll tell you. I really liked you, but there's this thing on your U5 that - I can't hire you. So I apologize, but we can't do it. And I said, what the heck is it? She goes, I don't know. That's all I was told by HR.
ARNOLD: It turns out that Wells Fargo wrote an Jeremy's U5 report card that he admitted to opening accounts for customers without their authorization. A bank is required to report wrongdoing on a U5. But Jeremy says, in his case, this just was not true.
JEREMY: The second that I found out about the U5 information, I was appalled. And now it all made sense.
ARNOLD: That is, all the times he'd get so close to getting a job, only to have it get yanked away after a background check. Actually, though, more recently, that's changed. Jeremy figured he'd try applying for jobs where the bank might not check his U5, for instance, a job where he'd deal with businesses rather than regular customers. And that works. He says his career is still limited, but at least he's got a solid job. But others haven't been so fortunate. It's still unclear how many workers this has happened to, but we spoke to former Wells Fargo employees in San Francisco, New Jersey, Florida, Los Angeles and Pennsylvania. They all said that they were fired or pushed to resign after resisting, like Jeremy did. They got a stain on their U5s, and most have been unable to get another job with a major bank.
Wells Fargo tells NPR in a statement that it's, quote, "disturbing to hear claims of retaliation against team members." The bank says it's investigating those claims. The bank also says it is assisting former employees to be rehired when possible. But former employees we talked to say they want more than that. Jonathan Delshad is an attorney bringing a class-action lawsuit against Wells Fargo on behalf of former employees. He says, many ask him...
JONATHAN DELSHAD: Is it possible, through your lawsuit, to get my U5 cleaned up? - because that's what I care about the most here.
ARNOLD: Delshad says, the workers who did the right thing, who pushed back against the wrongdoing in their branches and who were fired or pushed to resign, he says, Wells Fargo now owes it to them to get this career-ending stain off their records.
MONTAGNE: And Chris, what, though, exactly can be done to get this off their records?
ARNOLD: Well, what we know is that it is difficult and expensive. If you feel you've got something inaccurate or unfair on one of these so-called U5 records, it costs tens of thousands of dollars to hire a good lawyer, to sue the bank - and all of that with no guarantee of winning your case. And then you've spent all this money, and nothing's happened. So the people we've been talking to - they were mostly, like, lower-level salespeople. They can't afford that. But given what they've been through, they would just love it if Wells Fargo did something to help them clear up their records.
MONTAGNE: Chris, thanks very much.
That's NPR's Chris Arnold.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.