City Council bill to ban ‘cashless’ businesses moves toward vote

It’s getting more and more common these days – a business where the cashiers will swipe your card or accept payment via mobile phone, but don’t take cash.

While it may be trendy as fewer and fewer people, particularly affluent Millennials, are carrying cash these days in the era of Venmo and Uber, it’s also discriminatory except lower-income residents who still rely on cash, says City Councilman Bill Greenlee – even if the businesses involved don’t intend it that way.

“Even if it’s not intentional, it’s discrimination, because the cashless stores basically exclude a segment of the lower-income, minority immigrant population,” Greenlee said. “At a basic service business, I should be able to walk in and use a credit card if I want, but then the person behind me that might not have a credit card should be able to purchase the product if they have the money to.”

With credit cards and smartphone apps that customers can use to tap and pay, more and more people are going cash-free in their day-to-day life and businesses are changing to accommodate them. Some businesses are even starting to accept crypto-currencies like Bitcoin over cold hard cash.

The bill, scheduled to be voted on by Council on Thursday, would give cashless businesses until July 1 to get compliant with the new law. Greenlee said that while there may not be a huge number of cashless business in Philadelphia, “there’s evidence that it’s gonna grow,” meaning the change would be easier to implement now.

Other municipalities have raised similar concerns about cashless businesses restricting access to customers without bank accounts, and similar proposals to ban the practice have been made in New York City and Washington D.C. A statewide ban on cashless business passed the New Jersey legislature recently.

While some businesses remain cash-only to avoid the per-dollar fees that come with accepting credit card or debit card payments, there are benefits to going cashless. These include safety – with no cash, there’s nothing for a potential robber to take – and every transaction is recorded and accounted for to be properly taxed – a few bucks from a credit card transaction can’t just go missing.

“Welcome to the Future — It’s Cashless,” says Sweetgreen, the popular organic salad and grain bowl chain with six locations in the Philadelphia area, in an online announcement of their decision to stop accepting cash as of March 2017.

At the time, Sweetgreen explained online that just handling cash takes up to two hours a day, regardless of amount.  In 2007, 40 percent of their business was cash, and by 2016, that number had fallen to less than 10 percent, they said, while testing of cashless stores found staff could do five to 15 percent more transactions per hour, while customers were not too bothered by the change.

“So it’s looking like cash maybe isn’t king after all,” Sweetgreen concluded, pointing to Sweden as an example of “a nearly cashless society” and adding that going cashless would “save 100,000 driving miles (plus gas) for armored car pickups each year, as well as 500 lbs of paper. So eliminating green actually is more green.”

But according to the Pew Research Center, 34 percent of black people, 17 percent of Hispanic people, and 29 percent of people earning less than $30,000 a year are rely on cash for all their transactions.

Greenlee’s proposal would not affect internet retailers in Philadelphia. Businesses caught refusing cash payments would be fined $2,000 under the proposed law.

“Some places are basically saying ‘We don’t need your business or want your business here,'” Greenlee said. “Whether they’re consciously thinking that, I don’t know, I can’t get in their heads, but certainly the reality of it – there’s regular stores that people are not able to patronize.”

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