Dan Thomasson - Banks know how to pass the buck

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It has always been a Bob Cratchit/Ebenezer Scrooge sort of business ... "empty as a banker's heart" and so forth.

Ever get angry with those guys? Most of us have at one time or another for a variety of reasons ranging from disputed balances to impolite and diffident clerks to hidden and frequently raised fees to slow service at the drive through. Gouging seemed like the byword, charging us far more than they would give.

Ever walk into a bank you have been using for years and suddenly realize that the staff seems to change constantly-that no one recognizes you nor you them, that the bank manager or teller with whom you dealt so pleasantly last week has gone somewhere else. In fact that sort of Twilight Zone experience seems to be a regular occurrence. Well, there may be a simple explanation for at least some of this endless turnover. It's lousy pay.

You might consider this before feeling guilty about your permanent dismay at the role our commercial banks played in the real estate debacle that ignited the worst recession since the Great Depression and the amount of taxpayers' money spent to rescue them. The rich institutions most of us rely on to protect what little fortune we have managed to accumulate not only have bounced back, they also have found ways to escape a climate of unfavorable interest rates to get even wealthier.

One of these is for you and me to subsidize their under compensated help. According to a new study by the Labor Center at the University of California Berkeley, more than a third of the nation's 500,000 bank tellers are being partially supported by taxpayers. That is despite the fact bank profits exceeded $141 billion last year and the median income for the industry's chief executives was a tidy $550 million plus.

Match that against data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that puts the median annual income of a bank teller $24,100. That's a whopping $11.59 cents an hour, hardly enough to live on without a second job or (and here's the rub) help from tax supported programs like food stamps and Medicaid. The report says that in New York state alone 39 percent of the bank tellers and their family member are on some sort of public assistance.

Bank employees nationwide receive $534 million from Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program; 105 million worth of food stamps and $250 million for the earned income tax credit. That's nearly $900 million a year in supplemental income.

It's no secret that bank jobs are pleasant but financially unrewarding unless one rises to executive status. It's that image that inspired Charles Dickens to write a Christmas Carol. The position of handling the money behind the window frequently is held by the young on the make for something better or looking to pay for college. They frequently don't earn overtime or get paid for holidays when the bank is closed.

These bank employees most directly involved with the public aren't alone in their efforts to win a higher wage from their managers and with good reason. The federal minimum still is under $8 an hour and everyone from fast food workers to those laboring in discount stores are seeking local increases as high as $15 an hour. In the Washington area one retailer threatened to reconsider its plans to open several new stores if the local county or city governing boards approved a $11 to $12 wage minimum.

Now it seems lower level jobs may be jeopardized by technological developments like video conference tellers at ATMs. Whether or not the technology will replace thousands of jobs as protestors claimed the other day in a rally against them or just be used to supplement the work force as the banks claim remains to be seen. The history of this sort of automation is that once it is used, it ultimately brings economy of payroll. In other words, staff reductions.

The American taxpayers will continue to provide the Christmas goose and all the trimmings this year and probably for the foreseeable future because Scrooge, as we all know, wasn't just the figment of a wonderful writer's imagination.

I'm reminded of what humorist Will Rogers once said in a speech before the American Bar Association. He said it was a pleasure and that he hoped "you will invite me back when the other half of your membership gets out of jail."

These guys give new meaning to passing the buck.

(Dan Thomasson is a columnist of Scripps Howard News Service.)

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