No One Wants to Hire the Fired Wells Fargo Branch Staffers

It was a few bank accounts opened years ago that got Gerard Camerino fired from

Wells Fargo


WFC 0.55%

& Co. last October. He didn’t even remember some of the customers in question, but the company suspected their accounts were among the millions of potentially fake ones that have dogged the firm for years.

A former private banker in a San Francisco-area Wells Fargo branch, Mr. Camerino denies opening fake accounts. He has since applied for more than two dozen industry jobs and been rejected from them all. He wrote a letter to Wells Fargo retail-bank head

Mary Mack

asking for help but she sent him to the human resources department, which told him nothing could be done. After spending most of his career in banking, the 33-year-old isn’t sure what to do next. “It’s pretty devastating,” he said. Mr. Camerino is one of thousands of low-level branch employees fired by Wells Fargo as part of the bank’s effort to get its fake-account problem under control. Those firings began years before a 2016 settlement brought the problems into public view, and they continue quietly today. Firing employees suspected of dishonesty is standard practice at banks, where success depends on customers trusting a firm enough to leave their money there. But in the case of Wells Fargo, regulators, lawmakers and even the bank’s own board have questioned whether the junior staffers were really the ones to blame. Pervasive pressure from managers to meet aggressive sales goals was the root cause of the problem, according to a report from the board. That has been little consolation for low-level employees caught up in the scandal. Many have found they are now effectively blacklisted from the banking industry. A bank spokeswoman said Wells Fargo has “made fundamental changes to address the issues that may have contributed to undue sales pressure, while also holding team members at all levels accountable.” Executives believe they must fire anyone suspected of opening fake accounts to meet the terms of insurance coverage that protects the bank from fraud-related losses, according to the board report. But many fired employees say the investigations are stacked against them. The Wall Street Journal spoke to nearly two dozen former retail-bank staffers, including many who were fired. Wells Fargo declined to comment specifically on the ex-employees named in this story, but a spokeswoman said that “a thorough process was followed and the terminations were warranted based on the actions of the individuals.”

Mr. Camerino, at home with his family. Regulators and lawmakers have questioned whether low-level employees were really to blame for Wells Fargo’s fake-account problem.

Photo:

Timothy Archibald for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Camerino, who left college before completing a degree, worked at

Bank of America
Corp.


BAC 1.69%

and did a stint as a professional online-poker player before joining Wells Fargo in 2008. Before 2016, bankers were expected to push customers as hard as possible to open accounts, he said. A job at a Wells Fargo branch could offer a career with good benefits and relative job security. It was particularly appealing for people without a college degree, who make up a considerable portion of the staff. Mr. Camerino was surprised when, in 2018, he was called into a meeting with internal investigators and a bank attorney. They peppered him with questions about a handful of customers who had opened accounts early in his tenure. He told them he had no recollection of some of the customers but had never opened fake accounts. Mr. Camerino was registered with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or Finra, and Wells Fargo wrote on his public Finra record that he was fired over “quality of sales and short-term funding of bank accounts,” boilerplate language used in many terminations. Mr. Camerino contacted lawyers to help him dispute the remarks but balked at the cost, which ran to $25,000 or more. Regulators disclosed in the 2016 settlement that the bank had fired 5,300 employees since 2011 for “engaging in improper sales practices.” The bank has since continued to fire junior employees including Mr. Camerino for similar reasons, though it isn’t clear how many. Senior employees have also been taken down by the scandal. The bank’s two most recent chief executives resigned after they were unable to get the firm’s problems under control. Some managers in Wells Fargo’s retail bank were fired for cause. Others were laid off in recent reorganizations and have found themselves unable to access their restricted-stock awards, a byproduct of sanctions that require regulatory approval of the payouts. The bank has been slow to submit the pay packages to a key regulator, people familiar with the matter said.

Before Mr. Camerino was fired, bank officials questioned him about several accounts opened early in his tenure. He denies opening fake accounts.

Photo:

Timothy Archibald for The Wall Street Journal

Wells Fargo won’t rehire the fired employees. Some former employees found work at other banks, though many said they were able to do so onlyby glossing over the terms of their departure from Wells Fargo. If another bank contacts Wells Fargo about a fired employee, the bank’s policy is to disclose only job title and dates of employment. That isn’t an option for about 600 of the initial 5,300 fired employees, who were Finra-registered at some point. The reasons for their terminations are listed on their public records, though not all mention fake accounts. Contesting the black mark usually involves hiring a lawyer and spending more than a year in arbitration. Other banks worry about bringing over Wells Fargo’s sales culture. Nicole Rikli started as a teller in late 2013 at a Phoenix-area Wells Fargo branch, where colleagues would visit a nearby retirement community to pitch accounts to elderly residents, she said. (The bank said it no longer does that.) Ms. Rikli earned sales bonuses but said she never opened fake accounts. The bank terminated her in July 2016, telling her that some of the checking accounts she opened were unused or quickly closed, she said. She quickly landed a similar job at

JPMorgan Chase


JPM 1.97%

& Co. She said she told JPMorgan she had been fired and why. But within weeks, JPMorgan came across her Finra record and fired her, citing her earlier termination from Wells Fargo. She took a lower-paying job in the startup sector and built a career in that industry, which she says she prefers to banking. About two years ago, Wells Fargo sent her an email survey about sales practices. “I totally let them have it,” Ms. Rikli said. “But I never heard anything back.”

The bank branch in Fairfield, Calif., where Mr. Camerino worked. The Wells Fargo board found the root cause of its fake-account problem was pervasive pressure from managers to meet sales targets.

Photo:

Timothy Archibald for The Wall Street Journal

Other employees fired years ago are still reeling. Michael Bello worked his way up at a Wells Fargo branch in New Jersey. Higher-ups pushed him to open accounts for relatives and stay late to cold-call customers, he said. They also directed him to open some fake accounts, he said. Mr. Bello was fired in March 2016 over the fake accounts. “It was like something was pulled from under you,” he said. He has tapped his 401(k) during stretches without steady work and has since left the industry, working two jobs to cover his student loans. Ava Swendseid spent several years at Wells Fargo in Ventura County, Calif., where her branch manager would visit her desk hourly to ask about sales. After the 2016 settlement, she said, managers instead fixated on employees following scripts with phrases like “doing things right the first time.” The bank fired her in 2018, after grilling her about signatures on a child’s bank account opened years earlier. She said she never opened accounts without consent and was unaware of any issues with that specific account. Since leaving the bank, Ms. Swendseid earned her M.B.A. online and is now working on a Ph.D. online. She relies on her firefighter husband’s income. Ms. Swendseid, who is studying workplace motivation, said she thinks about her experience at Wells Fargo every time she writes a paper.

Wells Fargo fired 5,300 employees for ‘improper sales practices’ starting in 2011 and has continued to fire junior employees, including Mr. Camerino.

Photo:

Timothy Archibald for The Wall Street Journal

Write to Rachel Louise Ensign at rachel.ensign@wsj.com

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