Friday, January 24, 2020View Showroom
From a cup of coffee to a car ride, mobile devices or plastic cards are becoming the preferred, and sometimes exclusive, methods of payment in many parts of the world.
But being forced to pay that way, rather than having the option of using cash, may soon be illegal in New York City.
The City Council approved legislation on Thursday that prohibits stores, restaurants and other retail outlets from refusing to accept hard currency.
The measure puts New York at the forefront of a national movement to rein in so-called cashless businesses: New Jersey, Philadelphia and San Francisco all approved such bans last year, and several other cities are considering similar moves. Massachusetts has had a law requiring retailers to accept cash and credit since 1978.
But New York City officials have also targeted ride-sharing and meal-delivery apps, as well as facial recognition for building entries — all in an effort to blunt the impact of advancing technology on those who are unable to use it because of financial circumstances, unwilling to for philosophical reasons or vulnerable to its darker aspects.
“Consumers should have the right to choose if they want to pay in cash or not,” said Councilman Ritchie Torres, the bill’s lead sponsor. “We are reining in the excesses of the digital economy.”
Under the bill, businesses that refuse cash face fines of $1,000 for a first violation and $1,500 for each subsequent offense. Businesses with devices that convert cash to cards, like those found in many laundromats, are exempt under certain conditions, including a provision that there be no fee for such cards.
One large New York business that provides cash-conversion machines and would therefore be exempt is the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where many, though not all, concession stands do not accept cash.
With 23 of Mr. Torres’s colleagues signing on as sponsors, the bill, which he first introduced in 2018, passed the City Council by a 43-3 margin on Thursday. A spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday that he supported “the intent” of the legislation, but that his administration still planned to review it.
Kalman Yeger, a Democratic councilman from Brooklyn, criticized those who voted for the measure of “overreaching.”
“We are inserting ourselves in the business of business in a way that we don’t have the right to,” he said.
The move to protect the use of cash comes amid a worldwide trend toward electronic payments that is being driven by various factors.
For many people, it is simply more convenient to buy something with a swipe or a tap. Businesses that refuse cash say it is faster and easier for workers to process digital payments and keep customer lines moving. Fans of the cashless approach also say it spares employees from mundane tasks like counting money and limits the danger of robbery and theft.
But critics of cashless businesses say they discriminate against people who lack bank accounts and credit cards, while also raising the specter of hackers stealing personal data tied to digital transactions.
The city’s Department of Consumer Affairs said last year that one in nine New York households did not have a bank account, and that one in five were “underbanked,” meaning they had a checking or savings account but relied on something other than a bank to cash a check. Bronx households, the agency said, were around twice as likely not to have a bank account.
“I worry about the real-world discriminatory effect that cashless business can have on New Yorkers, especially in communities of color,” Mr. Torres, a Bronx Democrat, said.
The prospect of the Council prohibiting businesses from refusing cash appeared to go over well with Maren Berthelsen and Lucia Burns, two friends who were having lunch on Thursday at Mulberry & Vine on Warren Street in Manhattan. A sign near the restaurant’s register informed customers that cash was not accepted, and neither woman was happy about it.
“I think it’s incredibly discriminatory not to accept cash because some people can’t get credit,” said Ms. Berthelsen, a teaching artist.
Ms. Burns, a program coordinator, agreed.
“It is exclusionary,” she said, “because people without means are less likely to have a credit card.”
The National Retail Federation, a trade group, has taken the position that “retailers should have the right to choose which payments to accept and to decide for themselves whether going cashless makes sense for their businesses,” according to a statement by Stephanie Martz, the group’s general counsel.
Beyond that, Ms. Martz said, measures like the one to be voted on in New York City were “a solution in search of a problem since cashless stores are fairly uncommon.” Still, a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco cited by the federation showed the portion of transactions made in cash falling to 30 percent in 2017 from 40 percent in 2012.
The salad chain Sweetgreen was among the businesses with New York City outlets that had gone cashless. The company reversed course last year, saying that limiting how customers could pay “had the unintended consequence of excluding those who prefer to pay or can pay only with cash.”
Another restaurant chain that operates in New York City and does not accept cash, Dos Toros Taqueria, declined to comment on the passage of the cashless-store ban.
In City Council testimony last year, Leo Kremer, a Dos Toros founder, expressed opposition to the prohibition. He said that since moving entirely to electronic payments, the company had, among other things, cut down on firing or otherwise punishing workers over cash discrepancies.
Mr. Kremer also said that in considering expanding beyond New York, Dos Toros had picked Chicago over Boston in part because of the Massachusetts law.
Chicago is among the cities that is now considering its own ban on cashless businesses.