How a pensioner made Spanish banks rethink their customer service

It was his bank's limited counter service and indifference to his struggles with ATMs and apps that forced a Spanish pensioner to act, highlighting the problems the digital revolution is causing many elderly people. Meet Carlos San Juan, a hero for his and all other generations.

How a pensioner made Spanish banks rethink their customer service
Spanish retired doctor Carlos San Juan, who raised over 640 000 signatures for his petition "soy mayor no idiota" (I'm a senior citizen, not an idiot), poses during an AFP interview, following the presentation and signing of a new agreement by banking associations against the financial exclusion of the elderly, in Madrid on February 21, 2022. (Photo by Javier SORIANO / AFP)

For Carlos San Juan, from the eastern port city of Valencia, the tipping point was an incident with an ATM in which the bank staff “flatly refused to come out and help” and would not let him in because he did not have an appointment.

A retired urologist from Valencia, he went home and wrote a manifesto called “I’m old, not stupid,” which was initially signed in December by around 100 friends and acquaintances.

READ MORE: I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It struck a chord, quickly finding its way onto the online platform, where it picked up nearly 650,000 signatures of support and was put before the authorities.

Such was the pressure that Spain’s three main banking associations last week signed a protocol in the presence of economy minister Nadia Calvino pledging to improve customer service for older people.

Bank branches “will expand their counter service opening hours”, “older people will be prioritised” and “ATMs, banking apps and web pages will be adapted with a simplified interface and language,” said the Spanish Banking Association (AEB), one of the signatories.

‘Be patient with us’

San Juan hopes the measure will end “the plight of those who still have banking books, and that of older people with mobility issues having to queue in wheelchairs, with walkers or sticks, who have to “keep coming back” to see a bank employee face-to-face.

“I have Parkinson’s disease,” says this friendly, eloquent 78-year-old who normally goes to the bank when there are fewer people because he needs more time.

People of his age need to be shown patience, he says. “We might learn something today and then forget it two days later.”

Older people are “absolutely not against digitalisation… That’s here to stay”, all they want is “a more humane transition” into the future.

AEB president Jose María Roldan agrees.

“San Juan has made us all realise we need to look after those who can’t go as fast and those who will always need help because of their personal circumstances,” he said during the signing ceremony.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, the Spanish banking sector has halved its number of branches to around 20,000, shedding nearly 40 percent of its employees — who today number 172,000, European Central Bank figures show.

That is an average of eight employees per branch, compared with an average of 12.5 in neighbouring France, which has 402,000 employees and 32,000 branches.

A man withdraws money at a cashpoint (ATM) set up in a library bus (Bibliobus) in the village of Anover de Tormes, in the northern Spanish province of Salamanca on February 15, 2022. (Photo by CESAR MANSO / AFP)

‘State of distrust’

Some are already trying imaginative solutions to address the problems.

In Anover de Tormes, a tiny village of around 100 residents some 30 kilometres (18 miles) from the north-western town of Salamanca, a library bus pulls out of the mist and parks up.

In November, the “Bibliobus” was fitted with an ATM which David Mingo, head of culture for Salamanca province, describes as “an important first step towards resolving a big problem”.

After serving six people, the bus moves on to Santiz, which has 300 residents, three bars and a school.

In front of the “Bibliobus,” Agustina Juan, 79, admits with frustration that she does not know how to withdraw money with a card. In fact, in the three villages visited by AFP, only one person used the ATM to withdraw money.

“I have no idea how to use it. You know why I have it? So I can pay by card when I go to the supermarket,” she shrugs.

The bigger problem is trying to resolve an erroneous banking charge or any other problem.

“I have to travel 40 kilometres (to the branch) to see what’s happened. Or if you phone up, it’s awful: the line’s always busy and you have to keep calling,” she says.

At her side, 76-year-old Raquel Vicente says the elderly have lost track of their finances.

“The only thing you can do in your old age is count your money, but with the system like this, you just can’t see it, so you live in this constant state of distrust,” she sighs.

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KEY POINTS: What changes in Spain in July 2022?

July sees the start of the summer holidays in Spain and brings with it new crisis handouts, VAT cuts on energy bills, travel chaos and a possible deal on UK driving licences. Join The Local Spain as a member to find out about this and plenty more.

KEY POINTS: What changes in Spain in July 2022?

€200 crisis payment available in July 

As part of their new draft of measures to help those struggling with the rising cost of living, the Spanish government announced they would give a one-off €200 handout to the most vulnerable individuals.

The payment plan is set to be activated this month and you can find out who is eligible and how to apply for it here.

According to Spain’s Tax Minister María Jesús Montero, approximately 2.7 million people in Spain will be able to benefit from the scheme. Individuals can request the €200 payment, as can families, but only one payment per household is allowed.

VAT on electricity bills cut by half 

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez recently announced that the government would apply a further reduction in VAT on electricity bills, which has now been approved by the cabinet. This means that a VAT reduction, from 10 to five percent, will be applied to electricity bills from July onwards.  

Find out how much you could save on your electricity bill with the new VAT discount here

Travel chaos continues

In the lead-up to the summer holidays, there has been travel chaos across Europe, including in Spain, due to flight cancellations, staff shortages and strikes. Unfortunately, the travel misery is only set to continue into July as several Spain-based cabin crew, including those from easyJet, Ryanair and Lufthansa have announced strikes.

EasyJet staff are scheduled to go on a nine-day strike on July 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 15th, 16th, 17th, 29th, 30th and 31st. Meanwhile, the Ryanair strike, which started on June 24th will continue on July 1st and 2nd. Over 54 flights have already been cancelled by the low-cost airline and more than 300 have been delayed.

German carrier Lufthansa and its budget airline brand, Eurowings are also planning to cancel more than 3,000 flights this summer due to both staff shortages and strikes. This is expected to affect flights from the hubs of Frankfurt and Munich to Spain, among others. 

Could there finally be a deal on UK driving licences?

The British Ambassador to Spain Hugh Elliott recently shared his latest update on the driving licence negotiations between the UK and Spain, indicating a possible agreement to have affected drivers back on the road by the end of July 2022.

“The UK and Spain are now in agreement on the core issues that have been problematic and we’re now very close to finalising the actual text of the agreement,” he explained.

This will be a great relief for many British residents in Spain who were unable to exchange their licence for a Spanish one and haven’t been allowed on the roads since May 1st 2022.

Scorching weather returns to Spain in July

After a brief respite from the mid-June heatwaves, the hot weather is set to return in July. According to the weather site Meteored, the first week of July will see storms and unpredictable weather in the north of the country, while temperatures could reach over 40°C in the south of the country around Córdoba and Seville.

The middle of the month from July 11th to 17th is set to see temperatures rise again. It’s likely that much of Extremadura and Andalusia will experience temperatures around 40°C, while it could also reach 38°C in Bilbao and Madrid.

The last two weeks of July will get even hotter with Meteored predicting the hottest temperatures of the whole year. Temperatures are expected to be above normal in all regions apart from along the Cantabrian coast and in the Canary Islands.

Summer sales go into full throttle

July 1st sees the official start of the summer sales throughout much of Spain, although many stores have started even earlier. With rising costs due to inflation, this is the time of year to benefit from some of the biggest discounts.

Amazon has two days scheduled for its sales from July 12th-13th, while H&M and all the retail stores belonging to Spanish clothing giant Inditex (Zara, Massimo Dutti, Bershka, Pull & Bear and Stradivarius) are also due to have their sales this month.

After the start of the sales, you’ll see signs for “segundas rebajas” (second sales), then “terceras rebajas” and finally “remate final” (final push), where discounts progressively go from 30 percent to 40, then 50 and finally down to an incredible 70 percent price reduction. 

Imserso holiday scheme for pensioners kicks off 

Imserso is a social scheme offering holidays to the elderly, which aim to offer subsidised trips to pensioners. Applications for the vacation scheme this year are open from June 27th to July 19th and usually run during the low season from October. Find out how to apply here.

Depending on the dates you go and the type of accommodation you stay in, you will usually have to pay between €115 and €405 for the trip.

Vehicles in Spain need to have Intelligent Speed Assistance

New cars sold in Spain and across the EU must have automatic Intelligent Speed Assistance technology from July 6th as part of the General Safety Regulation.

All newly launched models will need to have Intelligent Speed Assistance systems installed as standard. The idea is to limit speeds and warn drivers to slow down if they’re over the legal speed limit.

Festivals in Spain in July

July sees a whole host of festivals and celebrations across the country. Most famous are the San Fermín Running of the Bulls, held in Pamplona from July 6th – 14th and the Fiestas de Santiago Apóstol, held in the Galician city on July 25th.

Other festivities taking place in July include Bilbao’s BBK music festival from the 7th to the 9th and the Moors and Christians parades in Villajoyosa from the 23rd to 24th, commemorating the battle of 1538.

Pride celebrations are also set to return in July. Madrid’s LGBTIQ+ festival will take place from July 1st to 10th throughout many areas of the city but concentrated around Chueca.

New law to improve rights of domestic workers

A new law could be approved this month to improve the rights of domestic workers so that they have the same rights as other workers, such as the right to unemployment benefits and proper wages.

A third of the 536,100 domestics (mostly women) who work in Spain are not signed up to Spain’s social security system, according to the country’s Labour Force Survey. Two out of every three have earnings around the minimum wage bracket.

Early last year the Spanish government sent out letters to Spanish households who employ workers to warn them of their obligations.