By Alexander Chan
Northwest Asian Weekly
The COVID-19 outbreak has forced banks to alter the way they conduct business. Financial institutions that cater to Asian American and international clientele, such as Cathay Bank and HSBC, have been adversely impacted by the economic shutdowns. Cathay Bank is lending less money this year than it did last year and HSBC recently announced plans for deep job cuts. The sights of vacant and boarded-up banks across the country have been far too common during this crisis.
Through perseverance, creativity, and perhaps some luck, banks in the Seattle area with large Asian client bases have largely avoided the same fate that has befallen some of their national counterparts. Nathan Nguyen, the director of consumer and wealth management for the Northwest for JP Morgan-Chase, said, “JP Morgan has not had to furlough or lay off any of our employees. We’ve paid every single employee from a high-risk population who needed to stay home.”
Albert Chun, branch manager for the International District branch of the Washington Federal (WaFD) bank, said WaFD has done something counterintuitive.
“We have not reduced staff, and, in some areas, we’ve added staff to the bank. We allowed any staff member who felt unsafe coming to work to stay home for a month with full pay and we offered branch staff a 25% premium pay to keep working in the branch to serve our clients.”
Banks were exempted from Gov. Jay Inslee’s Stay Home order from March as essential businesses. Most banks have remained open in the Seattle area throughout the entire COVID-19 crisis for teller services. However, some banks have adjusted how they conduct face-to-face meetings with customers.
David Kennedy, the Pacific Northwest Regional Communications Officer for Wells Fargo Bank, explained some of the challenges that Wells Fargo has faced with offering in-person representation.
“Throughout the country, including in Seattle, we have been and will continue to be open as an essential business. Through at least July 31, we will continue with our current operating model, which includes about 200,000 employees working from home and maintaining safety measures in locations that remain open.”
Nguyen indicated that while JP Morgan has not had physical meetings, they’ve been able to provide financial services to clients through online mediums such as Zoom.
“We are leveraging technology through this crisis to interact with clients.”
Efforts by the federal government to provide Americans with a safety net through this crisis have elevated the role of banks in the economic recovery. The Payment Protection Program (PPP) provided qualifying lenders with the task of submitting applications from business owners for federal loans that would allow businesses to keep employees on their payroll through any economic shutdown. Processing PPP applications has kept banks in Seattle extremely busy during a time with limited economic activity.
Laura Suter, regional communications manager for KeyBank, said, “We have been able to process all of our approximately 40,000 applications to date for PPP aid, totaling about $8 billion through the SBA. We are continuing to process applications as long as funds remain available in the program so that we can help as many of our clients as possible.”
Banks have also provided relief to their clients for credit card, mortgage, and other loan payments. Nearly all banks have extended forbearance and deferral periods and waived late fees for customers during these difficult times. None of the banking representatives interviewed by the Northwest Asian Weekly indicated that there had been a reduction in their institutions’ lending.
Anti-Asian sentiment has increased in Seattle and across the United States since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak. Asian small business owners have been targeted for hate crimes and racial harassment. None of the financial representatives interviewed by the Northwest Asian Weekly had heard of any instance of racial discrimination that occurred at any of their branches.
Business is expected to increase in Seattle now that King County has reached a modified version of phase one in Washington’s reopening plan. Banks in Seattle have prepared for a return to normalcy by installing plexiglass between tellers and customers at all locations, requiring employees to wear masks, enforcing social distancing between customers, and increasing the availability of hand sanitizer and sneeze guards at all branches.
Alexander can be reached at email@example.com.