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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
/
AP
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.

A couple years ago, the National Retail Federation announced paying 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 reports on social justice issues for KNKX. She previously worked for the nonprofit news site Crosscut — a partner of KCTS 9, Seattle’s PBS station. Reach her at lfowler@knkx.org.
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