Jamaica Magazine

The Bank Lines by American Retiree in Jamaica

As usual, most of my articles come from my life experiences. This one is no different. My bank was chosen for its location in a shopping plaza near my home. This is the closest bank to me which offers parking. That made the decision easy.

I have made mention of this and other banks in Montego Bay in past articles. This month I want to relate a recent experience I had at this branch of one of the largest banks in Jamaica. But first, let me explain some differences between banks in Jamaica and those in America. There is more of a variety of banks in my Boston,
Massachusetts area than in Jamaica. However, the Jamaican banks have far more branches, numbering in the forties of the larger ones. The high number of branches is indicative of the small number of major banks on the island, five to be exact. Somewhat of a monopoly in comparison. Interest rates for loans, according to newspaper ads, are in the upper teens and low twenties for mortgages and car loans, and in the thirties for personal loans. Not long ago it was disclosed that the government borrowed money at 46% interest from a Jamaican bank!

Another difference is the length of their operating hours. I was used to being able to bank seven days a week, and up to 11 hours per day. Not the case in Jamaica. My local branch is open Monday-Thursday from 8:30-2:30. On Friday they stay open until 4:00 PM, and they are closed Saturday and Sunday. It’s not hard to see that all bank business has to be conducted during a customer’s normal working hours. This means they have to leave their employ to conduct their transactions on their own time and without pay. Add to this, very few people bank by mail to pay their loans. So what we have here is all Jamaicans doing their banking in a six hour period of time. The postal service is partly to blame for this situation as they are not very efficient in delivering mail in a timely manner.

Perhaps at this point you can start to see what my recent experience was all about. Before I relate it to you, I must describe what takes place inside this bank. As you enter the bank there are three customer assistance desks in the front left hand corner. The teller windows are directly in front of you as you enter with a total of eight windows available. The tellers are broken down into three categories, regular transactions involving cash, senior citizens, and lodgments. “Lodgments” I am told is for non cash transactions. The senior citizens, age 55 and older, have one of those tellers at the extreme right side of the windows. As they enter, they take a ticket like at the deli department of large American supermarkets. The purpose of these tickets is so the customers can take advantage of the small waiting area which comes complete with financial magazines and other bank literature. The illuminated “now serving” sign is situated such that only those in the waiting area can see it. The first two windows on the left are for lodgments. That leaves five teller windows for all other banking transactions. Those customers stand in a line similar to that of a movie theatre or airport check-in.

Sometimes what happens is the senior citizens take a number but instead of going to the designated area, they get in the regular line. There are more times than not that the regular line will be faster than the senior’s line. This depends on the number of regular tellers and complexity of transactions to be made. When a senior citizen comes in and takes one of those tickets, they have no idea how many people are ahead of them. As an example, there may be ten numbers between your number and the customer being served. You have no idea as to how many people opted to going in the regular line. Counting heads won’t help as other customers will do other errands in the plaza anticipating a long wait at the bank. All you can do is sit, relax, and hope the other people have gone in the regular line.

All this said, it is time to describe my day, okay hours, at the bank. It was Monday morning, one of the two busiest days for banking, but I needed to transfer funds from one account to another. Therefore, I got in the lodgment line. There were perhaps 8-10 people ahead of me but with two tellers, I thought it would be the quickest line. When I came in, the senior’s line had twelve ahead of me and only one teller serving them. The regular line had maybe 35 customers. So you see after assessing the situation the lodgment line seemed to be my best choice.

I have been in Jamaica long enough to know that long lines at banks and other places are the norm. It is such a part of the culture that these long lines don’t seem to bother most people. That is, until that Monday morning. Usually the bank has two TVs tuned to local stations to appease the waiting throng. For some reason, that day neither of them were on. That made the wait longer without watching several episodes of The Bill Cosby Show.

Anyway, one of the lodgment tellers had one customer at the window for over 45 minutes. The other teller was faster but it didn’t seem to make the line move very much. Eventually it was my turn. As soon as I got to the window a man in the regular line leaned over the rope and started banging on the counter in front of the teller windows and yelling about how slow the line was moving. This got the immediate attention of the branch manager and two security guards. I was unable to hear both sides of the conversation but did understand that the customer, and a few others were bemoaning the fact that of the five teller windows only two were open. I did not hear the response but everyone was quiet after the branch manager spoke.

My total time to make my 2-3 minute transaction was just short of two hours. A recent reduction in the bank’s hour of operation has only added to the length of time that is needed to do one’s banking. If it hadn’t been for that outburst, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the extra length of time in the bank that day.

About the author

John Casey