Rising to the Challenge

By Laurie Stewart

After months of growing all-too-familiar with the interior of my home—and the aisles of the local grocery store where toilet paper, hand sanitizer and all-purpose flour are stored, or not—it’s hard to think back on what I had planned to be doing before COVID-19 became a reality and rapidly changed how our nation lived and worked. In that pre-virus world, I anticipated traveling around the country talking with bankers from Mississippi to Wisconsin about the challenges they were facing at their banks—and what the American Bankers Association could do to help.

As someone who thrives on interacting with my peers, I’ve missed speaking with so many of you in person. But thanks to the efforts of the ABA staff—working hand-in-hand with the state bankers associations—I have benefited from the wealth of resources available to help my bank navigate through this crisis. With a steady stream of breaking news shared through Daily Newsbytes, CEO Updates, ABA Banking Journal stories and a host of podcasts, webinars and other critical resources, we have been able to keep abreast of the biggest developments affecting our customers—while watching with pride at how bankers have risen to the challenge of this pandemic, with its record unemployment and financial pain.

In the process, our industry has shown what it is made of—dedicated employees working around-the-clock to help customers shore up their financial lives. Stationed at kitchen tables, in spare bedrooms, laundry rooms and makeshift basement offices, bankers transformed themselves into an informed and dedicated army of workers in order to assist customers under extraordinary circumstances. From working through the early glitches in the Paycheck Protection Program—so that thousands of small business owners could secure the loans they needed to stay afloat—to helping millions of customers who had lost their jobs find temporary relief through mortgage forbearance and debt restructuring programs.

As I told Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal during an interview, my bank in Seattle received five times the number of PPP applications for loan assistance that we originally anticipated. During that initial lending phase, we had no idea how many small businesses were starving for funds. So, like many bankers across the country, our staff worked day and night to process the loans as quickly as possible, before funds ran out. By the end of the first phase of the program, we had completed the same number of loans in two weeks that we normally handle in six months. It’s a feat that would have been impossible without the willingness of the staff to step up to the challenge, even when it meant working late on a Saturday evening and getting up on Sunday to start all over again.

I couldn’t be prouder of the role my employees—and bankers all across the country—have played in supporting their communities and keeping the economy running. As the beloved children’s television host Fred Rogers once said: “Real strength has to do with helping others.” In this regard, our industry has shown what it is made of. Whether waiving transaction and processing fees, offering payment extensions, providing emergency lines of credit, donating computers to local schools or using bank kitchens to prepare food for homeless shelters, we can all be proud of the important role we’ve played during this daunting time. (For more on how banks delivered PPP relief, see our cover story.)

Perhaps NPR’s Weekend Edition host Scott Simon said it best in an essay marking his daughter’s 17th birthday. He wondered aloud at what his girls would remember when they looked back at this time. “I hope,” he said, “they’ll remember how many good people worked so hard to keep the world running.”


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