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 some employees at Bank of America’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters caught the coronavirus, 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…