Banks join push to give workers time off to vote

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Banks of all sizes have joined a corporate campaign to persuade employers to give workers time off to vote in an election year in which just getting to the polls is expected to be more complicated than ever for many people.

The group, Time to Vote, was started by Levi Strauss, Patagonia and PayPal before the 2018 midterm elections to alleviate one of the biggest hurdles many nonvoters say keeps them from participating in elections: their job. More than 700 companies have signed up and committed in a variety of ways to make it easier for employees to vote on Nov. 3.

Roughly four in five ballots were cast in person during the 2016 presidential election. Though absentee voting is expected to increase this year, a scandal has unfolded over whether operational changes at the U.S. Postal Service will make it harder for a rush of mail-in votes to be counted in time. Safety measures being put in place at fewer voting locations because of the coronavirus pandemic are expected to lead to long lines in November, which some fear could put a strain on workers trying to cast their ballots.

Recently, Bank of America and Synchrony Financial in Stamford, Conn., have enlisted in an effort that already included JPMorgan Chase, PNC Financial Services Group in Pittsburgh, Beneficial State Bank in Oakland, Calif., and Arizona Federal Credit Union in Phoenix.

BofA is offering its employees who work 20 or more hours per week up to three hours of time off to vote in any local, state or federal election, a spokesman said in an email. Synchrony is offering two hours of time off to vote and is offering them help to register in time, the company’s spokeswoman said.

Banks’ involvement in the voting campaign is another example of the industry taking a stand on political and social issues at a time of civic unrest and calls for racial equity. Banks have pledged to make funds and other support available to Black-owned businesses and nonprofits while also acknowledging a lack of diversity within the industry.

Kat Taylor, who founded the $1.2 billion-asset Beneficial with her husband and former 2020 presidential candidate Tom Steyer, said in an emailed statement that some communities lack the political power to correct the “horrible injustices” of the coronavirus pandemic’s heavy death toll among Black Americans and police brutality that “continues apace.”

“This election cycle has once again exposed the worst of America’s racial fault lines,” Taylor said. “It’s incumbent on those with resources to use them to reduce barriers to voter participation among historically un- and under-represented communities, so they can attain the power and representation they deserve."

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Scheduling conflicts at work were cited as the third-biggest reason for the no-shows in the 2016 election, according to a Pew Research analysis of Census Bureau survey data completed at the time. Roughly half of the U.S. voting-age population generally turns out to vote in presidential election years; that participation rate has historically trailed other developed democracies around the world.

But the 2018 midterm elections were notable for its higher turnout. About 53.4% of voting-age Americans cast a ballot that year, up from 41.9% during the previous midterm election in 2014, according to the Census Bureau.

In addition to giving employees time off to vote, Beneficial has in the past turned some of its bank branches into polling sites and has forbidden meetings on Election Day to free up workers' schedules. But because of safety issues caused by the pandemic this year, the bank is setting up polling sites at its branches only in areas that lack effective infrastructure, a spokeswoman said.

Because of a lack of election workers this year, Beneficial is helping any employees who want to volunteer.

JPMorgan Chase is offering four hours of paid time off for employees to vote if their local polling hours don’t allow them to do so before or after their workday, a spokeswoman said. The $457.3 billion-asset PNC is allowing workers to take time off as needed to reach polls if they’re unable to before or after work, a company spokeswoman said in an email.

Arizona Federal Credit Union is allowing flexible schedules so workers can reach the polls, and it is sending out early-ballot information for their employees based on where they work, Chief Operating Officer Jason Paprocki said.

Paprocki said it would be “more convenient for a lot of people” if Election Day was declared a national holiday, but he added it was just as important to make it easier to vote by mail and to move the system to a more digital process.

“I think employers need to make some sort of accommodation in order to truly serve their communities — whether that’s giving employees time off, flexible scheduling, encouraging early voting by mail, or a combination thereof,” Paprocki said.

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Election 2020 Diversity and equality GSIBs Regional banks Community banking Bank of America Synchrony JPMorgan Chase PNC Financial Services Group Coronavirus