Even as local and state governments around the country request that businesses let their employees work from home to help contain the growing threat of the coronavirus, Wells Fargo has labeled its workers at call centers, complaint departments, and retail banks as “essential” and is demanding that they continue to come to work against their wishes.
The situation grew especially tense last Tuesday, when multiple California counties issued shelter-in-place orders and directed all non-essential employees to stay at home. That same day, the San Francisco bank’s head of consumer lending, Mary Mack, told employees in her division, in an email obtained by VICE, that the “branch, contact center, and operations center employees are considered ‘essential’ and exempt from the counties’ orders.”
VICE spoke with 11 current or recently departed Wells Fargo employees in six different states about the mandate. While banks have qualified under California and other states’ definition of “essential services,” Wells Fargo employees who work at the call centers, in complaints departments, and in collections have questioned whether that should include their jobs. The employees—who requested to withhold their names out of fear of reprisal—said they feared they might be exposing themselves and others to the highly contagious virus but felt pressure to go to work at Wells Fargo’s offices, which they described as crowded. The employees hold some of the lowest-paid jobs at the country’s fourth-largest bank. Often, they work under contractor or temporary status.
Those among them who have expressed their concerns with superiors have largely felt dismissed or ignored, they said.
“They refuse to let anyone work from home in our department,” said one call-center employee in Wells Fargo’s downtown Des Moines offices. “I have about 250 people on my floor. I'm terrified that I am going to get COVID-19 because of their greed.”
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Concerned Wells Fargo employees at call centers and complaint departments said they have tried to voice their concerns by speaking to their direct supervisor or turning to human resources about what they fear are unsafe working conditions, only to receive responses they feel are dismissive of the severity of the outbreak. After an employee in the complaint department at a corporate campus in West Des Moines, Iowa, expressed concern about the lack of safety measures taken in the workplace, his manager responded by saying that questions about negligence or safety concerns were simultaneously “inaccurate" and "inappropriate,” according to a screenshot of a text shared with VICE. Another employee who works with approximately 200 people in Phoenix, Arizona, said her manager mocked her concerns.
“My manager laughed when I asked if we would be sent home with/without pay or if there was a work from home option,” she said.
As of Monday, cars still filled the parking lot at Wells Fargo's corporate campus in West Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo obtained by Aaron Calvin)
Wells Fargo did not deny the primary claims put forth in this article, instead arguing that the unprecedented nature of the coronavirus pandemic and government regulations have made it difficult for large-scale businesses like it to respond. Nevertheless, a company spokesperson said it has expanded benefits and will continue to take more steps to protect employees.
“The health and safety of our employees is top priority,” the spokesperson said in a prepared statement. “We will continue to thoughtfully evaluate the needs of our employees as the situation evolves, and we will make changes as shifting circumstances demand.”
The spokesperson insisted that the company is working to allow as many of its employees to work from home as possible. “However, not all jobs can be done from home,” the company said. As of now, Wells Fargo is “exploring innovative ways to allow some contact center employees to work from home, while adhering to regulations requiring that contact center lines be recorded.” But Mack, the head of consumer lending, added in a phone interview with VICE that the company was receiving calls from concerned customers in certain business segments at an unprecedented rate, which, the company decided, made the role of employees at call centers and complaint departments critical right now.
“My manager laughed when I asked if we would be sent home with/without pay or if there was a work from home option."
The situation has created an increasingly tense environment at multiple offices. The employee in the West Des Moines complaint department said employees were worried about their own health, and managers had insinuated that concerns related to the pandemic were overblown. The employee said he witnessed instances of employees stealing wipes that others had brought from home.
“My concern is getting sick, or being sick and spreading it to everyone. We have old people and compromised people in a lot of places,” he added.
In response to such concerns, Wells Fargo said that it has undertaken “social distancing measures” to ensure the safety of in-office employees, including staggering shifts and rearranging its call centers to ensure that “the majority of desks are six feet apart.” The company also said it has implemented “an enhanced cleaning program” and sent sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer stations to its branches, operations centers, and contact centers.
But many of the employees said the company’s internal response has largely felt insufficient. One employee in the Wells Fargo’s collections department in Phoenix, Arizona, called the company’s claim that it had improved cleaning efforts “bullshit.”
“I 100% feel unsafe,” the employee wrote to VICE. “I’ve had the same trash bag in my trash can since LAST Monday. How I know, I have kept a tally mark on the bag for every day it’s stayed unchanged.”
The employee in the West Des Moines complaints department agreed: “We sit within three to five feet of each other with low walls separating. ‘Enhanced cleaning’ does not appear to be in effect. Many of us have remarked that we see cleaning services less than usual.”
"My concern is getting sick, or being sick and spreading it to everyone. We have old people, and compromised people in a lot of places"
To reduce the threat of coronavirus in its offices, Wells Fargo will allow certain people to take time off with pay without using their vacation days. This includes those diagnosed with COVID-19, those being tested for COVID-19, and those being advised to self-isolate because of potential exposure. Employees with a health condition that puts them at “high risk as defined by the CDC” are eligible for up to 14 days away from work as well.
Some states, like New York, have argued that testing should only be for those with severe symptoms, which could create a more complicated situation for Wells Fargo employees who suspect they have COVID-19 but aren’t displaying symptoms, haven’t verifiably come into contact with the coronavirus, aren’t in a risk group and cannot obtain a test. They must use paid time off to avoid going into work, and only a positive test will earn it back, according to the company’s policy as laid out to VICE.
Wells Fargo said other employees who are experiencing more general “worry, nervousness, or anxiety” are free to “use their PTO if they feel unable to work.” Mack, Wells Fargo’s head of consumer lending, added that these uncomfortable employees could additionally take unpaid time off work and would not be penalized due to their absence.
"I 100% feel unsafe."
Multiple call center employees said many of their co-workers have already decided to go ahead and do so. Others described more troublesome experiences, in which they felt pressure to remain at work or return to it in ways that appeared at odds with Mack’s assertion. One Wells Fargo employee at a densely populated corporate campus in San Antonio, Texas, left work for a time period because she was worried about what it would mean for her mother, who is in remission from cancer and immunocompromised. On Friday, she was told to return to work or risk being fired, she said. When a temporary employee at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage in Minneapolis, Minnesota, stopped coming into work to avoid the dense environment, he was let go from the company, he said.
“Any contention that employees are being threatened with termination because they are requesting time off is wholly inconsistent with the guidance that has been provided to managers,” Wells Fargo said in its statement. “Individual internal notes do not comprehensively reflect the thoughtful and evolving steps we are taking to support our employees.”
As the coronavirus continues to spread, Wells Fargo told VICE that the company has been asking employees for “feedback so that we can address any concerns quickly and fully” and develop “creative solutions to problems never faced before,” which have so far included a $100 per day reimbursement for hourly employees who need childcare in order to work.
Wells Fargo’s retail bank employees received some relief last week after the bank decided to close most of its bank lobbies and switch to drive-thru service only, closing some branches entirely and reassigning some of its employees to other branches. Before then, retail bank employees said they feared unnecessary contact with customers who carried the virus. One employee at a bank in Tennessee claimed that he and his co-workers were so anxious before the opening of their bank last Thursday that they gathered for prayer beforehand.
“I've casually spoken with a few people about quitting. We entertained the idea, but we're all stuck. We need our jobs"
The situation has left other types of employees struggling with what to do. “I've casually spoken with a few people about quitting,” said the employee in the West Des Moines complaints department. “We entertained the idea, but we're all stuck. We need our jobs.”
On Monday, after VICE reached out to Wells Fargo about employee concerns, the company announced internally that it had decided to hand out one-time cash payments to employees making less than $100,000. “This award recognizes how hard employees are working on our journey to transform Wells Fargo and reflects our commitment to take care of those that need our help the most,” the company said. The company will give eligible full-time employees $600 before taxes. Part-time employees get $300.
Additionally, the company said that “employees on the front line” who make less than $100,000 and “whose roles require they come in to the office [sic]” amid a global pandemic will receive a temporary pay bump. Starting in the second half of April, eligible employees will receive additional $200 per paycheck for five pay periods.
“During this global public health emergency, we are especially grateful to those of you who continue to come in to our branches, contact centers, and other offices to serve customers and colleagues. It is more important than ever that we keep providing essential banking and financial services to the public,” the company said. “And we appreciate how our employees continue to answer the call.”
In the same email, Wells Fargo announced that it had decided not to make a profit-sharing contribution to employee 401(k) plans for 2019, citing a combination of the company’s financial performance last year and “the extraordinary environment we are currently living through.” The company made $2.9 billion in net income in the final quarter of last year.
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