Monday the Des Moines Register reported that Wells Fargo fired an employee who’d been arrested in 1963 for trying to use a cardboard dime on a coin-operated washing machine in a Carlisle, Iowa laundromat. Richard Eggers, a 68-year-old Vietnam War veteran, had worked in the bank’s home mortgage department at a $29,795-a-year job, the Register said. According to the bank, federal regulations barred it from employing workers who’d been convicted of crimes involving dishonesty, even if their criminal records had been expunged. The 2011 rules were applied retroactively to Eggers, who’d been with Well Fargo seven years.
So far the story’s been getting attention on the Internet and radio as one of those What a Wacky World We Live In fillers. It remains to be seen if the level of public outrage reaches a point where someone blinks and Eggers gets his job back. In the past, it would. This kind of Les Miserables narrative, in which some poor hungry soul is arrested for stealing a loaf of bread and gets the book (not the novel) thrown at him, has long been a journalistic staple.
Then again, these are far different times and much of the outrage that has been erupting so far has been against the government for creating the regulation – which was put in place after the economy collapsed to prevent crooked executives and other fraudsters from being employed by banks and mortgage companies.
Wells Fargo, which probably could have quietly requested a waiver for Mr. Eggers, seems to have been spared most of the public’s wrath. In fact, it looks as though the banking behemoth is applying for I’m-also-a-victim status. (Hey, corporations have feelings too.) It’s a plea that even repelled Iowa’s conservative Senator Chuck Grassley, who released a statement conceding that, “On the face of it, these situations seem unfair. The public is right to question why top executives aren’t being held accountable, especially when banks themselves are using federal regulations to justify firing rank-and-file workers.”
In fact, it seems that the banking industry has mostly used the regulations precisely against thousands of its low-level employees. As Register reporter Victor Epstein dryly noted, “On the same day that Eggers was fired, Wells Fargo & Co., the largest U.S. bank by market capitalization, paid $175 million to the U.S. Justice Department to settle allegations it had targeted black and Hispanic homeowners for sub-prime loans.”
And yet many commentators responding online to the story fell in step with the bank’s sanctimonious view that it was only following orders.
“The guy got fired due to a regulation the government put in place,” wrote one Register reader. “[W]hen the government plays in the private sector, this is what we get.”
“It makes my blood boil that the regulators have forced banks to make these choices,” opined another man. “You [can] blame Wells if you want but you should also blame the regulations.”
If nothing else, Richard Eggers’ firing and its aftermath provide a vivid example of how corporations today can effortlessly pivot away from a PR disaster and send the grief the government’s way by simply claiming “bureaucrats made us do it.”
The blowback is still far from over, however, and the bank may yet emerge looking like the bad guy. As another Register reader commented, “Heads up people! This company received $10 million dollars from the State of Iowa to hire Iowans! Now they are conducting post-employment background checks and getting rid of people who committed extremely minor crimes in the past. ALSO…they are actively shipping West Des Moines mortgage center jobs to INDIA. Is this the type of ‘corporate citizen’ you want in your community? Not me!! This makes my blood boil.”