On April 2, the day that coronavirus infections around the globe hit 1 million, managers inside
One worker on the sales team noticed a colleague wasn’t on the list and asked where he’d be.
“Corona Town, U.S.A.,” the person wrote back. Then one of the bank’s credit-trading leaders,
More than 100 employees were on the message chain seen by Bloomberg, and some were horrified. It came soon after an outbreak of Covid-19 inside JPMorgan’s Madison Avenue headquarters, in which at least 16 people tested positive on a single trading floor. Some employees complain they’re getting conflicting messages from middle and senior managers about coming into offices, where billions of dollars of profit are at stake, and that they would rather follow the advice of government officials to hunker down at home.
“We’ve stated many times that anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable coming into the office doesn’t have to,” said
Those tensions aren’t limited to JPMorgan. While Wall Street firms have told most employees to work remotely, a number of traders and bankers who set up at home say they have been getting phone calls and messages from managers urging them to return to offices, some of which recently saw infections.
Small and large firms are trying to maintain enough on-site staffing to ensure swift trading. It’s the finance industry’s version of an issue spanning the U.S., where “essential” workers feel they have to choose between keeping their jobs and risking their lives.
Some investment banks have publicly touted the degree to which they are able to let employees work remotely, with
Around the same time that JPMorgan bond-trading executives were emailing each other,
Still, the situation on Wall Street contrasts with the pressures on tellers and call-center personnel to show up in consumer banking operations even though they earn less. And outside the financial industry, the situation is even harsher, with about 10 million people filing for unemployment benefits in just two weeks, and workers at companies such as
Traders have long been known to work through illness, but in the past few weeks those attitudes have shifted as news stations showed refrigerated trucks outside New York hospitals, medical tents in Central Park and public health officials begging people to stay home.
One trading executive at a major New York brokerage said he wanted to be the last person on his staff to stay at the office. Just before he left for home last month, he was exposed at work to the virus. He eventually developed a cough. Now outside New York, he has been working in solitude and staying up until 1 a.m. He recently got tested but still hadn’t received his results as April began.
Still, two people at the firm who fell ill said they had no complaints. One credited managers for sending his entire desk home after the first person got sick. Another said he kept working in isolation until his symptoms were too severe, and that managers then gave him ample time off to recover.
Most big banks announced similar strategies for preventing the spread of the virus at work: They assigned skeleton crews to trading floors and so-called disaster recovery sites, and sent the rest home. But within days, traders in offices privately complained about colleagues continuing to cluster around them. Some said they waited weeks for technicians to physically separate rows of specialized terminals.
A JPMorgan trader in London said he was initially sent to the basement of the firm’s 19th-century building along the Thames, where scores of colleagues nervously worked side by side. The conditions improved when back-office staff were allowed to leave. He said he, too, has since been told he needs a doctor’s note to work from home.
Workers who clicked the attachment realized it was an anti-phishing test on behalf of the compliance team and that they had failed it. Many were furious, the person said.
“Natixis strongly rejects any suggestion that it has put its employees at risk,” said Daniel Wilson, a Natixis spokesman in Paris, adding that all investment banking employees in the Americas have been working from home since mid-March. “We have taken rigorous measures in the U.S., as elsewhere, to protect our employees’ health and help slow the propagation of the virus.”
Market swings can generate big profits and losses for banks, and most executives agree it’s easier to navigate the turmoil from trading floors, where connections are faster and communication is easier.
On March 26, the fourth day of New York’s statewide lockdown, JPMorgan’s Adragna dashed off a note to his subordinates.
“With the amount of issuance trading we can really separate ourselves and do a great job for customers by being in the office,” Adragna wrote. “Let’s attack and use this as an opportunity to differentiate ourselves both internally and externally. LET’S GO.”
JPMorgan’s spokesman disputed the notion that Rohrbaugh would push anyone to come into the office and said the markets chief has reiterated on his regular calls that anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable coming into the office doesn’t have to.
Elsewhere within the industry, middle managers have cajoled reluctant employees by suggesting that their presence is needed to comply with regulatory pressure to more closely monitor traders’ dealings. It isn’t clear which watchdogs are making such requests.
The Securities and Exchange Commission and Financial Industry Regulatory Authority haven’t been pressing banks to increase on-site staffing in recent weeks, officials said. In a public notice last month, Finra said people would need to telework and that it would let firms improvise systems “reasonably designed” to supervise them.
Working from home has received mixed reviews from bankers and traders. Some of them grimace at the technical difficulties and chafe at the awkwardness of working among family. Others are
One senior trader at Goldman Sachs said she’s been writing emails while sitting on a yoga ball, and doing pull-ups on bathroom breaks. When she has to go back in the office, she said, she’ll miss doing burpees, a type of squat thrust, while listening to conference calls.
--With assistance from
David Scheer, Dan Reichl
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