Thursday, February 19, 2009

Nat'l news with local & personal twist!

Recently unemployed engineer Arthur Santa-Maria poses for a photo Saturday, Feb. 7, 2009 at a Bank of America ATM in Los Lunas, N.M. Santa-Maria was surprised to learn he must pay fees to withdraw his unemployment money using a state-issued Bank of America debit card.
(AP Photo/Sergio Salvador)
AP IMPACT: Jobless hit with bank fees on benefits
19 Feb 2009
First, Arthur Santa-Maria called Bank of America to ask how to check the balance of his new unemployment benefits debit card. The bank charged him 50 cents.

He chose not to complain. That would have cost another 50 cents.

So he took out some of the money and then decided to pull out the rest. But that made two withdrawals on the same day, and that was $1.50.

For hundreds of thousands of workers losing their jobs during the recession, there's a new twist to their financial pain: Even as they're collecting unemployment benefits, they're paying bank fees just to get access to their money.

Santa-Maria, the laid-off New Mexico engineer, said he didn't pay any fees the first time he was laid off, for several months in 2007. His unemployment benefits were paid by paper checks. He found a new job last year but was laid off again last fall.

This time, he was issued a Bank of America debit card — a "prepaid" card in industry lingo — but he was surprised to learn he had to pay fees to get his money. He asked the bank to waive them. It said no. That's when Santa-Maria called back to ask how to check his account online. He logged on and saw that the call cost him a half dollar. To avoid more fees, Santa-Maria found a Bank of America ATM at a strip mall and withdrew $80 at no charge. When he got back to his car, he decided to take out the rest of his money — $250 — and deposit it in his bank account.

Afterward, Santa-Maria logged on to his account and saw a charge of $1.50 for two withdrawals in one day.

Arthur Santa-Maria was a colleague of mine. He was laid off when the company decided to abandon what some 20 years earlier had been its core business. He'd done nothing wrong, had a sterling work history, and knew his job well. He just happened to be one of several hundred who found themselves in a business unit the company decided would be best divested.

All these folks got the news in the 2nd week of August, 2007. It was a very strange time to go to work. You didn't know if you should ask, or even if you should look friends in the eye.

When I started work at the company in 1987, one of its "claims to fame" was that in its then 20-yr history, it had never had a lay-off. That started to change in 1997, when it instituted the first of several subsequent "voluntary separation" programs. More recent RIFs were less-than-voluntary.

In retrospect the Aug 2007 divestiture & lay-off can be seen as the opening chapter of what no one at the time was acknowledging as a difficult economic future. The company continued to publish absurdly optimistic growth "forecasts" - I deliberately put "forecasts" in quotes: these were based less on any rational business model than on fantasies mandated by internal politics.

Having been retired for 9 months, I don't know if current forecasts better reflect reality.

At any rate, it was surprising to see Arthur's picture in a national news article!

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