Are Banks to Blame for Low Bank Teller Pay?

On Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that "Low Bank Wages Are Costing the Public Millions." According to the Post, a new study from researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found that because of low wages, bank tellers nationwide receive $900 million in government subsidies per year -- think food stamps, tax credits, Medicaid, and so on.

Are banks, the de facto scapegoat for all problems economic, really to blame for this -- or, perhaps, are there bigger forces at play?

Banks, to be fair, bring the criticism on themselves
The banking industry is, frankly, an easy target for this type of study. The industry reaps billions and billions of dollars in profits each year -- according to the FDIC's Quarterly Banking Profile, the industry's aggregate net income for the quarter ended Sept. 30 was more than $36 billion. Not bad for three months of work. And executives have some of the most outsized salaries in business.

Take Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf. Wells Fargo is one of the best run banks in the world. But does one man's contribution justify $19.3 million in 2012 salary, as reported by Bloomberg Markets? Or Bank of America's Brian Moynihan, who earned $12 million in 2012? How does a regional bank with relatively simple operations justify paying one man, like BB&T's  CEO Kelly King, $8.6 million? 

According to data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve, the average American worker will clock in for about 1,700 hours per year. Let's give these bank CEOs the benefit of the doubt and assume they work twice the average, 3,400 hours per year. 

Is John Stumpf worth $5,676 an hour? Is Brian Moynihan worth $3,529 per hour? Is Kelly King's $2,529 hourly pay worth 218 times the average teller's?

To these questions, I do not have answers. There may not be a suitable, across-the-board answer to the reality of income inequality in the banking industry. But I do feel very confident saying that the scope of the Post's article is far, far too narrow. 

"The severe lack of bargaining clout among our lowest wage workers"
The article quotes a part-time Bank of America teller earning $13.50 an hour as saying the pay "is not a livable wage." According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this individual is doing better than most, with the average pay for the job at $11.59 an hour.

That being said, the BLS calculates the median annual wage for all workers at $14.93 an hour, a meager $3.34 improvement from the typical teller. The root of the problem is not about banks; it's about the structure of the U.S. economy and the quality of the jobs available to the workforce.

I think Jared Bernstein of The New York Times puts it eloquently when explaining that the minimum wage "is, in fact, a relatively small-bore policy that sets an important labor standard: the government will compensate for the severe lack of bargaining clout among our lowest-wage workers by setting a floor below which we won't allow their wages to fall."

Unions have fallen out of favor since their heyday in the middle of the 20th century. The labor market has been and remains weak since the recession. When times are good, the lowest-paid workers have the least negotiating power to share in the profits. When times are tough, they have even less clout.

People need jobs, but corporations can increasingly turn to technology to enhance, reduce, or even replace the tasks once performed by people. Productivity goes up, and quality jobs disappear.

Income inequality in this country is a major problem. Too much wealth is concentrated in too few hands. I don't know what the solution will be, but I do know that The Washington Post ignored the real issues to paint banks as the villains.

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