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How increasing the minimum wage helps women in banking

Today, much of the conversation surrounding the banking industry occurs at the top. Topics like exorbitant CEO pay, bonus structures and the regulatory environment dominate the op-ed sections nationwide. Little ink is spilled, however, concerning a large population of bank workers who often go unnoticed: bank tellers. Perhaps the term “banker” evokes a certain stature of wealth or prosperity, but, for most tellers, being a “banker” means earning less than a living wage. While of course it is a major labor issue that bank workers are earning poverty wages, it is also an important women’s issue for our industry given that more than five in six tellers are women.

The plight of the minimum wage worker is nothing new. A full-time worker earning the federal minimum wage earns well below the federal poverty line for families of two, and because of income eligibility thresholds, these workers may earn too much to qualify for safety net programs like Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Earned Income Tax Credit. The good news is that, over the last few years, both workers and advocates have shone a light on this vast injustice and have championed the campaign now known as “The Fight for $15” to help rectify it. The fast-food industry, airport workers, retail employees and home care workers have all entered the fray as prime examples of industries earning poverty-level wages fighting for a fair, livable wage. Noticeably absent from this group, however, are bank tellers.

There are over half a million bank tellers in the United States, making the occupation by far the largest within the retail banking industry. Almost three-quarters of bank tellers make less than $15 an hour. For this population, the problem has gotten even worse. As the cost of living has increased, the real value of their paychecks has diminished, thanks in large part to stagnating wages. Between 2009 and 2014, bank tellers saw their real wages decline 3.4%. The decline in wages for tellers at a time when CEOs of big banks are pocketing bonuses to the tune of tens of millions reminds us that if there was ever an industry that could afford to up the ante when it comes to minimum wage, it’s banking. It is simply unacceptable that any employees within the banking sector, one of the highest-grossing industries in modern history, rely on public assistance.

In 2015, when Amalgamated increased our minimum wage to $15, we challenged our banking peers to follow suit. We view this not just as a workers’ issue but a women’s issue as well.

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It is important to remember that it is, by and large, women who are affected by this inequity. And while it may be the worst-kept secret in banking that there exists a gender gap in the finance sector, it is also women who largely make up the bank teller workforce and are disproportionately affected by this underpayment — as is so often the case in fields where women make up the majority of the workforce.

And, by addressing the underpayment of our industry’s largest cadre of workers, we have the ability to make a similarly significant impact in our communities and our society. Numerous studies have shown that empowering women in the workplace — whether it is increasing workforce participation, closing the gender pay gap, including more women in leaderships roles or paying women more — reaps significant rewards for families, communities and economies.

By helping take the Fight for $15 to the grass roots of the banking sector, we hope to lift up women at every level of employment, shine a light on pathways to career development and ultimately chip away at the deeply entrenched issues of female underrepresentation in management and at the executive level.

Little cracks in the proverbial glass ceiling can lead to a complete shattering. If banks across the nation agreed tomorrow to pay all their employees at least $15 an hour, it would mean hundreds of thousands more women earning a living wage. Our sector should be doing everything in its power to address inequities, and one common-sense step we should take immediately is to correct the longstanding underpayment that exists among the largely female workforce that staffs the banks that dot our nation from shore to shore.

Keith Mestrich's BankThink post is part of a series that also features Bob Jones, the chief executive of Old National; Kathryn Petralia, the chief operating officer and co-founder of Kabbage; and LeeAnne Linderman, an executive vice president at Zions Bancorp. before her recent retirement.

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