Branches brace for staff shortages, rush for cash

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Branches are getting more hands-on attention as bankers brace for more challenges from the coronavirus outbreak.

While several banks have temporarily closed branches, many thousands remain open across the country. That is forcing everyone from tellers to CEOs to focus more on basics such as staffing, sanitation and having enough cash to meet customer needs.

Those efforts could prove critical if bank employees get sick or customer behavior takes an irrational turn.

"Banks are so important during times like these for a number of reasons, including to calm people," said Larry Mazza, president and CEO of MVB Financial in Fairmont, W.Va. "We still want to conduct business, but we need to do it safely."

The $2 billion-asset MVB, which has branches in West Virginia and northern Virginia, is relying heavily on interactive ATMs that allow call center employees to serve customers around the clock. The company also instituted an "appointment-only" policy for some transactions to avoid congregation in branch lobbies and to reduce the number of employees in each location.

MVB also shuttered its branch in Leesburg, Va., out of "an abundance of caution," according to its website.

InBankshares in Raton, N.M., developed a plan to allow its branches to operate with limited staffing by redirecting customers to drive throughs and walk-up windows, said CEO Ed Francis. The $394 million-asset company's branches are in New Mexico and Colorado, including a concentration around Denver.

"The most critical factor has been our significant investments in online and mobile banking technology that allows for a large majority of transactions to be executed outside of the branch," Francis said.

Arkansas Federal Credit Union in Jacksonville is insisting that any employee who feels remotely ill stays home, said President and CEO Rodney Showmar. The $1.3 billion-asset credit union is providing opportunities for team members to work from home or take paid time off.

The credit union has also assigned essential teams to remote locations to avoid clusters.

"No team member is pressured to come to work, and they are encouraged to stay home if they feel it is the best scenario for them and their family without the risk of reprisal," Showmar said.

Wells Fargo said in an email to customers that it had established protocols to make sure that any employee who is "high risk or potentially infected" stays at home. The San Francisco company also said it "implemented enhanced cleaning procedures" that follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health agencies.

The $17.6 billion-asset Atlantic Union Bankshares in Richmond, Va., also ramped up cleaning.

“In the major office buildings, we were having intraday cleaning, where the custodians were going around with disinfectant wipes, wiping off door handles, cleaning the bathrooms, that kind of thing,” said John Asbury, Atlantic Union’s president and CEO.

“Sanitation has stepped up,” Asbury added. “Purell hand dispensers popped up where they never were before. There's an intense focus on hygiene and cleanliness. I bet you we all wash our hands differently from this point forward.”

Some banks are preparing for nervous customers withdrawing large sums of cash.

Jack Heath, president of Washington Trust Bank in Spokane, said the $7.2 billion-asset bank has fielded a lot of inquiries from customers about the need to have cash on hand.

"We're having proactive discussions with our clients and working through their issues and fears," he said. "The credit and debit system will continue to operate, so cash is not critical. Like toilet paper sales — don’t over react."

Lines of credit will stay in place, and customers can use them, but Washington Trust is encouraging clients to hold off until the funds are needed.

If businesses are forced to close or are losing money due to supply chain issues, Washington Trust can defer principle and interest payments, and there are government programs and other options in place to assist.

"Small businesses are the heart of our community and will be what leads the recovery from this crisis — and we're here to help," Heath said.

InBank has fielded questions from some customers about what they should do with their money, and the bank continues to reassure them about federal deposit insurance and the safety and soundness of the entire banking system.

"We have also begun to see customers who are seeking additional loan fundings, but no significant draw downs on lines of credit," Francis said.

Arkansas Federal Credit Union has heard from other lenders that concerns about the cleanliness of cash might limit withdrawals.

"At this point, we do not anticipate any increase in cash demand, but we will continue to monitor activity daily," Showmar said.

MVB has increased the amount of cash on hand to be safe. Concerns about cash have been "few and far between" at MVB, though Mazza said his team had one client who wanted to withdraw a large sum of cash.

"We talked him down from that," Mazza said.

John Reosti contributed to this report.

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