The price of unemployment 

A Fee Too High

For seasonal workers in Western Montana, getting through the winter is tough enough. It’s no different for St. Ignatius resident George Hansbrough, who spends summers cooking for wildland firefighters and collects state unemployment payments in the off-season.

So when Hansbrough attempted in early February to cash his unemployment check at a Missoula branch of U.S. Bank, which issued it, he was troubled to learn the bank had instituted a new $5 check-cashing fee for people who don’t hold accounts. Rather than pay the fee, Hansbrough chose to walk out, check in hand.

Paul Christofferson, administrator for Montana’s Administrative Financial Services Division, says the state contracts with U.S. Bank for much of its banking. He says the state’s contract doesn’t prevent U.S. Bank from adding a fee, but that the state has already received complaints about the new charge and will consider the issue when contemplating contract renewals.

Jennifer Wendt, a U.S. Bank spokeswoman in Minnesota, confirms that in January 2007 the bank did introduce the $5 fee to Montana branches for non-account holders seeking to cash U.S. Bank checks worth more than $100.

She says it’s to cover the costs of doing business, as well as to hedge against non-members who try to cash fraudulent checks.

“It’s a higher risk if it’s not someone who has an account with us,” Wendt explains, offering that an easy way around the fee is to open an account at U.S. Bank.

That answer doesn’t satisfy Hansbrough, who says the fee is “just another excuse to charge us and just another squeeze on the little guy.”

“They’re penalizing me for their inability to recognize a fraudulent check,” says Hansbrough. “It’s not even their money. It’s the state’s, employers’ and employees’ money. They’re just the administrators and if they can’t prevent fraud it’s not my problem.”

A week later, Hansbrough says, he returned to the Missoula bank and employees waived the fee, informing him that it would apply next time. But Hansbrough, who last week drove to his own bank in Polson to deposit his most recent check, says there will be no next time.

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