Greece’s banks — shuttered for almost two weeks — are thought likely to run out of money by next Monday if they don’t get a fresh cash injection from the European Union.
But while the banks, besieged by angry customers, have been under the spotlight, we haven’t heard much from the bank workers, the men and women who have the unenviable task of looking after the dwindling pile of cash and keeping Greece’s faltering financial system alive.
Effie Panoutsakopoulou works in one of the few bank branches in Athens that has remained open during the crisis. It’s her job to issue cash cards to the mostly older customers who don’t have one and are therefore unable to use an ATM to draw out the daily limit of 60 euros ($66). Effie has to explain to customers that she can take their application for a cash card but nothing else. That's not what they want to hear.
"Today a customer told me, 'I have a gun and I’m going to kill you,’ because we didn’t let him open his safety deposit box,” says Panoutsakopoulou.
Before the bank closures, many Greeks took cash out of their accounts and stashed it in a bank safety deposit box to protect their money from being suddenly converted to drachmas. But now, since the banks are officially closed, the boxes cannot be opened, so the tactic has backfired.
Customers threaten and abuse Panoutsakopoulou and, if all else fails, they plead.
“There’s an old pensioner coming in, and he says, ‘I’m going to die soon, so I want to open my deposit box.' And we cannot open it. And he starts crying. Other old people [are] coming in, and they want money. And they’re crying," she says.
Exhausted and emotionally drained, Panoutsakopoulou seems close to tears herself.
But Helen Stathis, a high-flying executive at another bank, is angry.
“I am angry because I don’t want to lose my dreams. I have worked very, very hard — all my life — and I don’t like it when I see my dreams being destroyed," she says.
Forty years old, divorced, a mother of two, Stathis has sacrificed a lot to get where she is. But the fact that her bank and her career are now tottering doesn’t elicit much sympathy from family or friends.
“They seem a bit jealous sometimes, or they treat me unfairly, saying that I should not complain because I still have my job and because I haven’t suffered a lot in the crisis. But it’s not true. I have suffered,” Stathis says.
She says that she has had many sleepless nights worrying about the plight of her customers, and she’s had a 20 percent cut in her own salary. Also, she stresses, “We did not create the crisis. It was government overspending that was mainly to blame. It was not the banks.”