Geico workers accuse company of aggressive tactics to deter union push

Workers at the US insurance company vow to continue their efforts to organize as an independent labor movement takes hold

Workers at an office of the US insurance giant Geico have embarked on a unionization campaign in the face of what they say are aggressive and unfair management tactics to prevent them from forming a labor union.

Workers at the office of about 2,500 employees in Amherst, New York, near Buffalo, say they have faced deteriorating working conditions in the past two years under the Geico CEO, Todd Combs. Combs is an investment manager and protege of billionaire Warren Buffett, whose firm Berkshire Hathaway owns Geico – known across the US for its ads featuring its English-accented gecko mascot.

The organizing effort, Geico United, went public shortly after Geico sent out a company-wide email in August 2022 that told workers to call the police if they felt uncomfortable with union organisers collecting union authorization signatures.

“The NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] says that an employer should not hinder your activity, but they did,” said Lila Balali, an employee and organizer at Geico.

Another email was sent out by Geico shortly after, which included several references to the Starbucks union campaign, in an effort to deter and dissuade union organizing with claims that the campaign hadn’t yielded any benefits for workers.

Then, meetings with Geico management were held, and the union was discussed. After one of the meetings, Balali said the bulletin board where union flyers were posted was removed from the office.

The union has filed unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB. New York state legislators sent a letter to Geico over the emails and actions, calling on the company to allow its employees to organize freely.

Workers explained the union organizing campaign took off in response to changes and issues that arose under Geico’s new CEO and the Covid-19 pandemic.

“When the pandemic happened, I think I just got completely disillusioned when I realized Geico isn’t what I thought it was, they’re not what they portray themselves to be, at least as an employer,” added Balali.

Lonnie Konikoff, a longtime Geico employee in Amherst, New York, said that was exemplified through a subreddit of Geico employees, full of sentiments about degrading working conditions over the past couple of years.

“We want to help Geico, we want to make Geico a better place to work,” said Konikoff. “We’re just human beings that want to have a better working environment for us, as well as our fellow workers, and to be compensated fairly. I think that is what every worker in America wants and we’re simply not getting it at Geico.”

Several workers who spoke to the Guardian requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

The workers cited numerous changes since Combs was appointed in January 2020, including the closure of 38 offices in California, cutting the research and development department, changing sales metrics and disciplinary policies, insufficient training of new hires, inadequate equipment and technology, as well as not providing reimbursement for workers who had to work from home and purchase their own equipment at the beginning of the pandemic.

“There were a lot of good reasons to work for Geico, there was profit sharing, all sorts of incentives. All of that has since changed where they now basically expect us to almost be like a computer, taking back-to-back calls on a consistent basis,” said one worker in Amherst.

A Geico employee outside New York, who is also working on organizing a union and requested to keep their location and name secret for fear of retaliation, echoed those sentiments.

The worker explained amid drastic staffing cuts and consolidation of departments, there wasn’t enough staff to complete the work that is needed, and they lose staff to competitors where pay, benefits and working conditions are better.

“Because of our staffing issues, there’s not enough people to do all the work that needs to be done, and it has this big, crazy snowball effect,” the worker added.

Another Geico worker organizing at a separate office emphasized similar problems, citing cuts, consolidations and a lack of job security as pressing concerns for workers that corporate has ignored.

“We have to organize in order to give ourselves a voice and a seat at the negotiating table to advocate for better pay, better job security, for more vacation and sick days for ourselves, for better advancement opportunities within the company,” they said.

A spokesperson for Geico said: “In areas where we have been overstaffed because of lower volumes, we offered associates positions in other departments with comparable pay and better opportunities, and the company provides additional benefits if associates are displaced by major business changes. We care about our associates and work hard to find better opportunities for them within the company while adapting to changing customer demands.”

The spokesperson added: “Geico associates have the right to support or oppose union representation. We respect these important rights. We believe that the allegations in the charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board are completely without merit.”

• This article was amended on 3 October 2022 to correct the spelling of Lila Balali’s name.


Michael Sainato

The GuardianTramp

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