Bank of America Corp., which is trying to polish its image and lift employee morale, saw its latest efforts backfire into a new public relations nightmare in its old home state of California.
State government officials - charging that the $621 billion-asset company is extracting work without pay from its employees - are threatening to take Bank of America to court. They are upset over a program the company introduced last month in which workers nationwide were invited to "adopt" automated teller machines near their homes or workplaces.
Bank of America's longtime headquarters residence in California ended in September 1998, when the company merged with Charlotte, N.C.-based NationsBank Corp. Since then it has withstood harsh attacks in California from public interest and community development groups, bad publicity from layoffs, and, most recently, criticism for its aggressive defense in Santa Monica and San Francisco of charging noncustomers fees to use its ATMs.
Newspapers from San Francisco to Los Angeles jumped on the adopt-an-ATM story, casting the program as an example of worker exploitation and transforming what the banking company says was an innocent volunteer drive into another black eye for Bank of America.
In its defense, the company says there is nothing mandatory about the work being done by the 1,500 employees who have signed up in the three weeks since the program was introduced. The work is in addition to the normal maintenance done on each machine, and involves only visiting the ATM to check on whether it is working properly and is clean and well-lighted at night.
The goal, according to a brochure distributed by the company, is to "make sure it's the kind of ATM you would like to use."
"A lot of people in the company are interested in doing what they can to make the customer experience as pleasant as possible," said Bank of America spokesman Peter Magnani.
State labor officials see things differently. In a letter last week to Bank of America California president Michael Murray, California's labor commissioner demanded an end to the program.
"Our reaction to this is one of shock," wrote Marcy V. Saunders, the commissioner. "Bank of America is flagrantly violating the most basic precepts of wage and hour law."
California regulations, she explained in the letter, mandate that employees be paid for all hours they work, whether required or voluntary. She demanded that Bank of America discontinue the program or modify it to compensate workers for time spent working on the ATMs and travelling to them.
If the company does not comply, the state will sue it, she said.
Mr. Magnani responded that Ms. Saunders does not fully understand the program. Bank of America has received no complaints about the project in any of the 20 other states where it has branches, he added.
"This is an overreaction to a voluntary program by someone who is not fully acquainted with the facts," Mr. Magnani said. "We are confident that once she is fully familiar with the details of the program, she will agree that we have acted lawfully and in good faith."
Representatives from both sides said Monday that they were attempting to schedule a meeting between Ms. Saunders and bank officials in hopes of working out a compromise.