BY: Juliana Feliciano Reyes

Out of the roughly $30,000 that Amos Troyah made last year as a dishwasher at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, $2,000 went toward fees to the Marriott Employees’ Federal Credit Union.

Troyah’s story is common, according to a recent New York Times article: housekeepers, cooks, and other low-wage workers at the Marriott, many of whom are black and Latino, say they’re turning over a chunk of their paychecks to cover overdraft ($35), automatic-transfer ($6), and minimum-balance fees ($10) on their checking and savings accounts with the credit union.

Around the country, thousands of Marriott workers represented by Unite HERE have been on strike since early October. In Philadelphia, some workers at the Marriott Downtown hope to unionize with Unite HERE, saying that even though their wages are above average, they’re actually making less money because they’re getting scheduled for fewer hours. Those Marriott workers hosted a rally Friday afternoon outside their workplace, the biggest hotel in the state, where Gov. Wolf and Mayor Kenney spoke in support of their bid to organize.

Mayor Kenney (foreground) and Gov. Wolf spoke at a rally for the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown workers who hope to unionize.
ERIN BLEWETT / STAFF

Mayor Kenney (foreground) and Gov. Wolf spoke at a rally for the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown workers who hope to unionize.

‘Legacy of sharecropping’

The Rev. Greg Holston, executive director of interfaith justice group POWER, described the credit union situation as exploitative.

The Marriott, he said, doesn’t give its workers enough hours, so they take out these loans and are then effectively indebted to their employer because they have to work more to pay off the loans.

“These stories evoke nothing less than the legacy of sharecropping,” read a letter signed by Holston and three other black religious leaders, including the Rev. Alyn Waller of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church and the Rev. Jay Broadnax, president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia.

Holston, Waller, and Broadnax tried to deliver the letter Monday afternoon, but the Marriott’s market director for human relations, Bruce Brobeck, refused to take it, saying he did not have control over the credit union. It’s a separate institution from the Marriott.

“Nobody ever told anybody they had to take a loan,” Brobeck told the group of ministers in the hotel lobby.

The mini-loans shouldn’t be a way of life, he said, but some workers use it that way. He said he tells the workers when they come to him to get the forms for a loan: “Guys, let’s manage your money better.”

Glenn Newton, the CEO of the credit union, told the Times that overdraft fees had actually decreased by nearly 10 percent between 2013 and 2017 and that he believed that situations like Troyah’s were not common.

These workers are also paying application fees and interest on short-term, mini-loans, which Newton said offered a much lower interest rate than payday loans. Still, financial experts say these loans can still result in a cycle of workers racking up fees on their checking accounts.

Why credit union fees went up

Credit unions, not-for-profits that receive a federal tax subsidy, were originally designed to serve workers who didn’t have access to the kinds of bank accounts that their wealthier colleagues had. Through money made off loans, usually to those wealthier colleagues, credit unions were able to offer accounts for little to no cost. But over the years, as revenue from loans shrank, credit unions raised their fees.

Charging fees, the argument went, was justifiable because it was simply asking customers to pay for services provided. It wasn’t fair to ask customers to subsidize those who were overdrafting their accounts.

But, the Times reported, “the effect in many cases is that the people least able to bear the costs of operating a credit union are gradually paying more of them.”

Also: “The fees that an average Marriott credit union member pays across all services — $94 last year — are far higher than at these other institutions, and higher than at credit unions of a similar size.”

‘Predatory inclusion’

The Marriott credit union, in the way it’s described in the Times article, is an example of what sociologists call “predatory inclusion.” A term coined by researchers Louise Seamster and Raphaël Charron-Chénier, predatory inclusion describes the process where financial institutions target seemingly helpful services to marginalized groups but ultimately end up exploiting these groups and undoing long-term benefits. Student loans and housing loans offered to black people but with predatory terms are other examples of predatory inclusion. Seamster and Charron-Chénier have argued that predatory inclusion perpetuates economic inequality between races.

Credit unions fit this bill, Seamster and Charron-Chénier said, because they were designed to serve low-wage workers and also profit from their position as supposedly more ethical institutions than, say, traditional banks.

Philadelphia Media Network is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at https://brokeinphilly.org

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