Family members of COVID-19 victims perform a cremation ceremony in Delhi on May 6, 2021. (Image by Atul Loke © 2021 The New York Times)
Bank employees have been caught between a rock and a hard place fighting the pandemic on one hand, and dealing with the pressure to attend to customers that walk into branches, on the other hand.
Though many banks have theoretically reduced staff strength at branches, in many cases, employees have been asked to attend offices, exposing them to the risk of infections, said several employees Moneycontrol spoke to across different bank and employee unions.
The number of infections and associated deaths have gone up sharply in the second wave of the pandemic with cases spiking across different states.
Around one-and-half lakh bank employees have been affected by the coronavirus so far across different banks. Among them, around 1,200 employees have already succumbed to the deadly virus, according to data compiled by the All India Bank Employee Association (AIBEA).
"We have lost about 1,200 colleagues already. Not all banks are forthcoming in sharing the details and compensation policies for the families of those who died due to this virus," said CH Venkatachalam, general secretary of All India Bank Employees Association (AIBEA), India's largest body of bank employees.
"Bank employees are living through one of the toughest times since the start of the pandemic," Venkatachalam said.
According to the data provided by the employee unions, in the Central Bank of India, so far 4,878 employees have been affected so far and 94 have died due to COVID. Out of the total deaths, Ahmedabad and Chennai centres have seen maximum deaths, followed by Bhopal, Pune and Delhi, according to the association. In State Bank of India (SBI) Chennai circle alone, over 2,000 employees have been infected and 11 lost lives.
In April, the Maha Gujarat Bank Employees' Association (MGBEA) said nearly 15,000 employees had tested positive in Gujarat and more than 30 of them died during the second wave. Nearly 10,000 employees were infected in March across the state, the association said. In February, the Indian Banks Association (IBA) said 600 employees had died till December. But, this toll has gone up since then.
Compensation for the families
Most state-run banks have announced a compensation of Rs 20 lakhs each to the families of the employees who died due to COVID. Central Bank of India, last year, had announced a scheme under which Rs 20 lakhs will be paid to the family of the deceased in the case of a COVID death. SBI, too, has announced a compensation of Rs 20 lakhs to families of those employees who died due to COVID. A similar scheme has been announced by Canara Bank and Union Bank of India as well.
Emails sent to Axis Bank, ICICI Bank, HDFC Bank and Kotak Mahindra Bank seeking details about the COVID infections among employees and the number of deaths didn't elicit any response at the time of filing this story.
A tough time for bankers
Banks employees have been one of the most vulnerable segments to the COVID infections due to the nature of their w0rk. Since banking is an essential services, banks have been asking some of their employees, at least 50 percent of the strength, to attend branches to attend customers. Banks often force employees to attend office and those who do not comply face penal actions. This is despite the fact that much of the bank work can be done digitally, without endangering the lives of the staff.
Employees are caught in a spot and many are declining transfers from hometowns to metro areas, fearing COVID-19. On the other hand, there are people in cities who have completed their tenure and waiting for transfer to the safety of their home towns. Typically, a bank employee serves in a branch for a maximum of three years.
But employees have been pushing for work from home citing increased risk of COVID infections. To give an example , State Bank of India officers association, in its letter dated May 12 to the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, had said that there is a shortage of staff across branches of SBI and other banks due to the voluntary retirement norms and restrictions on hiring over the last two decades.
"At this juncture, operating the branches with 50 percent staff, is a nightmare and highly impossible one, demoralising the work force, said the association in its letter to the chief minister. Moneycontrol has reviewed the letter, adding that even protection by police has not helped to control crowds at some places. Hence, the association requested to limit the transactions to remittance, withdrawal, clearing and government transactions. It has also demanded alternative bank working days and cluster banking module.
According to a bank official who didn't want to be named, many bank branches are forcing staff to attend office despite high number of infections in branches. "We have high number of cases in the area. But, we have been asked to come for work," said the official working with a state-run bank.
"The situation is not good. Banks are open, and at some places staff members have been beaten up by police while on their way to office," said the official who declined to be named.
“Despite high risk of infection, I was asked to attend office and later tested positive last year. The branch manager didn’t even give me time to recover from the infection-related health issues fully. I had to return to work,” said another bank official working with a Chennai-based state-run bank.
The IBA, early this year, had written to the government, seeking priority vaccination for bank employees. In March, a parliamentary committee had recognised bankers as “COVID warriors” but there has been no official notification, Venkatachalam said. “COVID-19 warriors” can get vaccine on priority.