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King County Council to consider impact of cashless businesses

A close up of a person's arm and hand holding a phone next to a sign that reads "We are cashless."
Bebeto Matthews
In this Jan. 23, 2020 file photo, a restaurant sign alerts customers that it's now "cashless," in New York. The coronavirus pandemic forced business closures and lockdown orders. In the 12 months that followed, many aspects of daily life changed, including how money was handled.
Updated: July 5, 2023 at 4:02 PM PDT
Businesses in unincorporated parts of King County will now be required to accept cash.

The King County Council passed an ordinance June 27 on a 5-4 vote. The ordinance is meant to help residents who lack access to a bank account and who don’t use a debit or credit card.

The ordinance prioritizes essential businesses such as grocery stores, while other services like hair dressers, tanning salons and insurance agencies will be allowed to remain cashless.

Councilmember Joe McDermott voted against the ordinance, calling it a "weak statement" because it shouldn't matter where people want to spend their money.

"It may be trivial to worry about tanning beds or nail salons. But those are services people seek and they should be open to people who are unbanked, just like they are to people with bank accounts," he said.

The ordinance is set to take effect July 1, 2025. The county will ask state and federal officials for guidance on how best to enforce it.

A couple years ago, the National Retail Federation announcedpaying at the cash register with something other than cash was on the rise because of concerns over how COVID could spread. Although we now know COVID is airborne, some of those pandemic habits have stuck.

The Federal Reserve estimates that in 2021, about 80% of transactions involved a credit or debit card.

King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles said that doesn’t work for everyone. According to the 2021 FDIC Household Survey, about 2% of Washington state residents are "unbanked" — meaning they don’t have bank accounts or credit cards. In King County, this translates to an estimated 67,000 people who are unbanked.

Still, around the region, some businesses have opted to go cashless which limits access for the millions of people without bank accounts. Now King County is trying to do something about it.

The council member said she is introducing legislation that would require businesses in unincorporated King County to accept cash and to not charge a higher price for this form of payment. The proposal would also allow for civil actions to be brought by someone whose cash payment was refused.

“There are significant data that show that cashless business has hurt communities of color, seniors, disabled persons, undocumented residents and refugee and immigrant communities,” Kohl-Welles said.  

Kohl-Welles said she’s introducing this legislation because she is also worried about what the progression to a cashless economy might mean for some small businesses that can’t afford to pay the fees associated with card transactions.

“We know in our county, especially in the lower income communities…there is a lot of displacement going on. And what's going to happen with those small businesses if we go more and more toward a cashless transaction mode? They're going to be displaced,” she said.

Lilly Ana Fowler covers social justice issues investigating inequality with an emphasis on labor and immigration. Story tips can be sent to