When a group of Bank of America employees dialed into a call with their boss, Soofian Zuberi, late last month, they were expecting to hear that they could continue doing their jobs from the safety of their homes. The coronavirus had ravaged New York City and was tearing across the country, leaving well more than a thousand dead. Most firms, including those on Wall Street, were already recommending that people work from home.
Mr. Zuberi provided no such comfort. Instead, the global sales executive praised individuals by name who were still braving the office, calling them out as if they were soldiers in an ongoing battle, according to three people on the call, which took place on March 27. He emphasized that their colleagues in India were so dedicated to the bank that they were sleeping at the office. The upshot, the people said, was clear: Mr. Zuberi’s group, which sells stocks and other financial products and makes a lot of money for the bank, should be in the office, too.
Mr. Zuberi’s message typified the hard-driving culture that has come to dominate Bank of America’s global markets division since Thomas K. Montag, now the bank’s president, joined the firm 12 years ago, traders and other employees say. And while Wall Street by its nature prizes profitability above all else, at Bank of America that ethos has collided with the fears of employees in a way that has made many of them feel their safety is hardly a priority. The markets division includes bankers, traders, stock salespeople and others who conduct business and trades on behalf of corporations and investors. Such businesses often make their biggest profits during times of extreme market volatility, such as now.
Traders and those who work closely with them have felt pressure to continue showing up even though the coronavirus has swept through Bank of America’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters, according to nine current employees and six former employees with knowledge of conditions there. The situation is forcing some to make a painful choice: Report to the office and risk infecting themselves and their loved ones, or remain home and risk the loss of a job or income.
Since state and federal guidelines have established financial services as an essential economic activity, banks have wide leeway in deciding who must work at job sites and who may stay home. Yet while key traders from Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and other large financial firms have retreated to home offices, tackling technology and communications setbacks as they arise, their counterparts at Bank of America are often erring on the side of going in.
The bank’s communications about the number and location of sick employees have been scant, say markets-division workers, leaving many worried that they may have unwittingly spent time near a virus patient. The lack of information has also created an atmosphere of paranoia, whispers and gossip, employees say.
“Lot of cases are popping up,” wrote a trading employee in an April 2 text to a relative that was reviewed by The New York Times. “I know of at least 10+ confirmed/likely cases on the 5th floor alone,” the worker added, referring to the floor at Bank of America’s headquarters where stock traders sit.
The bank wouldn’t say how many people had fallen sick.
“We’ve got a critical role to play to help keep the economy moving forward,” said Jessica Oppenheim, a spokeswoman for Bank of America, in a statement. “That’s our assignment. At the same time we are sparing no expense or consideration taking care of our people.” She added that 95 percent of trading-business employees are now working from home.
Since early March, she said, the bank has told employees that anyone who feels unwell should stay home, and a nurse has been placed on site to take temperatures. Yet, in a telling sign of how the messaging and clout of heavyweight executives can carry far more significance than official bank communications, some traders say they feel they must come in unless they are confirmed to have coronavirus — even if they have fevers, according to two current employees.
Central to the culture at Bank of America’s markets division is Mr. Montag, a former co-head of Goldman Sachs’ securities business. Since joining Merrill Lynch in 2008, just months before it merged with Bank of America during the financial crisis, he has kept a tight grip on the workplace, employees and alumni of the markets division say.
Mr. Montag has also promoted a culture of old-school toughness in the division. It’s a culture that prizes long hours and face time, these people say, things that can be hard to replicate in an environment in which government officials are urging Americans to stay home, and many workers are juggling family obligations and their jobs.
In many organizations, particularly in finance, “there’s this sense of immutability, a sense of ‘this is the way it has always been done, and this is the way it has to be done,’” said Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford. With that mentality, “there is a shockingly little amount of the questioning of assumptions,” he added. “It’s completely dysfunctional.”
In a recording of a recent phone call with employees that was reported by CNBC, Fabrizio Gallo, who runs Bank of America’s stock division, said of working from home that “we are going to entertain special cases but not the ‘I don’t feel comfortable, sorry.’ It doesn’t work that way over the long term.” In a statement to The Times, Mr. Gallo said he was referring to future scenarios during that call.
For employees at Bank of America, the stakes are high. Some say they worry that if they don’t show up to the office, they’ll be poorly paid or let go at the end of this year — a fear that is widespread across Wall Street.
Mr. Montag has been known to monitor the comings and goings of his trading team, sometimes leaving notes on their desks noting the time — usually after 5 p.m. — and asking where they had gone, since he was still there, according to two former executives. Once, during a presentation to his top lieutenants at an off-site meeting in Barcelona, Mr. Montag put up a slide showing the number of attendees who had taken the redeye flight to Europe and those who had flown during the day, on what is pejoratively known in financial circles as “the chairman’s flight.” The move was widely seen as an attempt to chide those who spent the extra day traveling rather than flying all night to avoid losing productivity, say two people who were there.
Mr. Montag did not respond to a request for comment.
On March 27, the same day that Mr. Zuberi hailed people on his team who were coming into the office, Brian Moynihan, Bank of America’s chief executive, appeared on CNBC assuaging fears and promising to avoid layoffs at least until the end of the year. “We don’t want our teammates to worry about their jobs during a time like this,” he said in the interview.
Mr. Zuberi did not respond to a request for comment.
Some traders who have worked from home during the virus outbreak have faced a different set of issues. One big one is a limit on how much of the bank’s cash they can use or borrow to buy and sell securities, according to four employees, which can harm their ability to trade profitably. Profits are key to traders’ year-end bonuses, which are typically higher than their base salary, and any impediments are viewed with great concern.
Traders working from home must also check in frequently with supervisors and provide lists of their accomplishments, and their use of company trading platforms is monitored remotely.
Those coming into the office face other threats. Social distancing has been unevenly observed, say employees and their relatives. Trading-floor bathrooms in San Francisco and Stamford, Conn., a backup site, have not been consistently cleaned, with piles of paper towels and overflowing trash cans in the men’s room at one point in mid-March, say three employees who have recently worked there. Bottles of hand sanitizer have been provided, they added, but masks have run short and some workers have had to furnish their own as of early this week.
A worker on the third floor of the bank’s New York office, where there are hundreds of bond traders, stopped showing up around the first week of March, say three employees on that floor. Colleagues wondered aloud whether the person was sick with Covid-19. The only clue was a sign near the elevator banks restricting access to that and other trading floors to all but the employees who normally sat there.
It is not clear when the bank learned that the employee had tested positive, but the following week, a few people on that floor were alerted that the person had contracted coronavirus.
To deal with the increasing risk of infection, Bank of America created two teams and suggested they alternate weeks at the office and working remotely. Other banks, including Goldman and JPMorgan Chase, had made similar adjustments to mitigate the risk while keeping markets and other essential areas running smoothly.
In early March, JPMorgan planned to increase social distancing by sending Manhattan-based traders to multiple backup locations. But technology setbacks prompted the bank to return them to its main office. Over time, at least 20 employees became infected with coronavirus, according to The Wall Street Journal, with some reporting that they felt pressure to be at the office.