As published in Crain's New York Business on August 19, 2015.
When most people think about who makes the minimum wage, they often think of high school students trying to earn extra spending money. But that's no longer the profile of an average minimum-wage worker, who is 35 years old. One in four is a parent, and two in three are women.
And when most people think about someone working in a bank, they think of CEOs, receiving big bonuses and living lavishly. But the most common job in our industry is a teller, and a recent report by the National Employment Law Project found a significant share of bank workers don't earn a living wage and rely on public assistance.
Amalgamated Bank applauded Gov. Andrew Cuomo's recent wage increase for New York's fast-food workers, and similar moves in Seattle and Los Angeles. This progress should encourage government and business leaders (including bankers) in every state and city to reevaluate what it means to give employees the pay they deserve. It's time the men and women who work in our banks get the same raise. That's what we're doing at Amalgamated, where we now pay every teller, customer-service representative, clerk and janitor at least $15 an hour.
Bank tellers in the U.S. earn a median hourly wage of just $12.44; 75% earn less than the $15 minimum wage they should. Tellers tend to be older workers who view these jobs as permanent, as careers. Their wages need to support lives and families. For a woman with two or three kids, working full-time as a teller would leave her family at or below the poverty line.
More than half of New York state's 30,250 bank tellers make less than $15 per hour; their median wage is just $13.31 per hour. A recent University of California Berkeley study found that, as a result, nearly 40% of bank tellers' families in New York state are enrolled in at least one public assistance program, such as Medicaid, food stamps or housing subsidy.
That number is far too high, and when compared with nationwide stats, the need for change becomes even clearer. Public assistance enrollment is 31% among financial services workers and 25% for all workers.
Public assistance is an inefficient way to address the effects of wages that are too low. The use of such programs by families of bank tellers costs New York state more than $100 million each year.
Our bank might be the first one to pay every employee $15 an hour, but we're not the only one that couldn't operate without the workers who talk to our clients every day and keep our banks in order. That's why we hope other banks will follow our lead.
We see banking as a business that's about more than accounts. It's about being accountable to our customers, our employees and the families they support. So we started thinking about how we could live those values and asked ourselves what it means if some of our employees don't make enough money to put some away in the very savings accounts they support day in and day out.
A minimum hourly wage of $15 will ensure that our workers can also support their families, including their kids' education. It also makes good business sense: We never forget that our employees are part of our economy as consumers. When they earn more, they support local businesses, rely less on public assistance and have a better shot of moving into the middle class. More money in their pockets means more money in our economy and, eventually, in our banks.
Amalgamated Bank proudly supports a progressive vision for America, where economic opportunity is available to all, not just the wealthy few. Bank employees, just like fast-food workers, shouldn't be left out.
Wages are not just line items on a budget -- they are the basis of people's livelihoods. It's time to face reality. Raising bank employees' wages will be good for them, New York state, New York City, our economy and our industry.