The coronavirus has caused a coin shortage, and Philly's Mint is working overtime to make up for it
By JASON LAUGHLIN | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: September 21, 2020
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PHILADELPHIA (Tribune News Service) — Roughly once a week, Marta Rusek’s studio apartment is adorned with damp clothes laid out to dry.
With coins scarce all over the country, the Center City resident has favored air drying rather than the coin-operated laundry machines in her Spruce Street building.
“Basically,” she said, “my quarters are very near and dear to me.”
Rusek, 35, washes much of her wardrobe in her bathtub, much as she did in 2011 while serving with the Peace Corps in Gambia.
“It reminds me of those days I would actually do the laundry with my host family,” she said.
Help is on the way, from about a mile away.
At the Philadelphia Mint — the nation’s largest producer of coin currency — 14 presses, each producing 750 coins a minute, are running seven days a week to compensate for the pandemic-caused coin supply problems that turned quarters, nickels, and dimes into rare commodities.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in the past,” said a veteran Mint worker who maintains the coin presses and asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
During each two-week pay period, he said, “I’m putting in about 30 hours' overtime.”
The hardship caused by the coin scarcity is being disproportionately borne by people who are “elderly and poor, because that’s where most coins are being used,” said Subodha Kumar, a professor of marketing and supply-chain management at Temple’s Fox School of Business. “A lot of these impacts are similar to the impact of the cashless economy.”
The problem isn’t a lack of coins, the Federal Reserve said, but a lack of circulation.
When the pandemic shut down businesses and financial institutions, the normal exchange of coins seized up. Even since reopening, concerns about cash as a COVID-19 spreader caused some businesses to insist on card-only transactions, despite Philadelphia’s banning such restrictions.
The pandemic has also accelerated trends toward online shopping, Kumar said, where no coins change hands. The result: too much of the nation’s $48 billion in circulating coins is sitting stagnant.
“The nation’s coin is pooling in change jars, in car cup holders and in shuttered businesses,” according to a July statement from the U.S. Coin Task Force formed by the Federal Reserve, “making it difficult for the businesses of this country to get the coin that they need to support cash transactions.” The task force includes representatives from the Mint, the Federal Reserve, and the banking and armored-vehicle industries.
The vast majority of America’s circulating change is coined at mints in Philadelphia and Denver (you can tell where a coin was made from the tiny “P” or “D” engraved on the head side). Philadelphia’s mint, founded in 1792, is the largest in the world and under normal conditions produces about 500 million coins a month. Reduced staffing meant to protect workers from the pandemic, though, dropped coin production by 10% in April and 20% in May, said Todd Martin, a Mint spokesperson. To compensate, Philadelphia’s mint almost doubled its normal output last month, producing 910 million coins. It minted 810 million in July and 775 million in June.
Denver’s and Philadelphia’s facilities combined are producing more coins than they have in 20 years, aiming to produce 1.65 billion coins monthly through the rest of the year.
The Federal Reserve has capped the volume of coins it is distributing to the nation’s banks and credit unions to spread out change more evenly, but it would not estimate when coin circulation would get back to normal.
The task force initially recommended people spend coins or deposit them at the bank. Last week, the task force’s second round of recommendations included a tool kit for retailers, banks, and armored carriers to increase coin circulation.
Presses running on weekends at the Mint have become the new norm. Coin dies are quickly worn out by the relentless pace.
“Employees have essentially been working seven days per week for three months,” said Chris Rapcziewicz, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 1023, which represents about 300 Philadelphia Mint workers.
This spring, the 120 workers responsible for coin production in Philadelphia were divided into three teams to reduce the number of people on the production floor, Rapcziewicz said, slowing production until June. Workers wear masks and socially distance. The union head said he was satisfied management is protecting workers, though he is seeking bonuses for employees who have to work on site rather than from home.
The dearth of coins has changed the way businesses operate throughout the economy. Wawa is among the businesses that have asked people to pay with cards or exact change. TD Bank, a Cherry Hill-based subsidiary of a Canadian bank chain, is limiting the number of coins customers can withdraw, said Matthew Doherty, a spokesperson for the banking chain. It is also offering customers the opportunity to deposit change from a cashed check back into their account, or donate it.
Local businesses have had to get creative. In June and July, Joe Cleary, chief financial officer for Morey’s Pier in Wildwood, scrabbled to collect enough quarters to tide over the pier’s coin-pitch games and coin-operated vending machines through the summer.
“I visited every community bank and large bank and sometimes local banks to try to get a box or two,” Cleary said. “For about three weeks I was getting as much as I could.”
Fu-Wah Mini Market, a family-run grocery and sandwich shop off Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia, accepts only cash, and owner Dave Lai turned to friends, employees, and even customers willing to exchange large numbers of coins for paper cash. He got lucky about a week and a half ago, he said, when he got help from a friend who had collected $1,000 in coins.
“I was running low, big time,” Lai said. “I was getting a little worried about it.”
Increasingly rare coin-operated laundromats, like Somerset Laundromat in North Philadelphia, have turned into a coin resource, since the business' income comes in quarters. Etienne Easley, who recently went there to do laundry, said keeping her clothes clean is no problem. She just exchanges cash for coins there. But at neighborhood convenience stores, particularly those locally owned, she’s increasingly being asked to pay with a card or exact change.
“You do what you can because it’s a pandemic,” Easley said.
Card-only transactions are impossible for people who don’t have credit or debit cards. In the Philadelphia region, almost 6% of residents were what’s called unbanked, according to a 2018 study from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. An additional 22% were considered “underbanked.”
“We need to provide them alternate ways rather than cutting them off,” Kumar said, noting China is adopting a system that uses smartphones and QR codes to bypass banks. “Other countries have created ways even the poor segment can use that technology.”
Philadelphia attempted to address these equity problems in 2019, when it required most retailers to accept cash, and prohibited them from adding fees for cash transactions. That law has not been enforced, officials said, as part of efforts to limit the coronavirus’ spread.
It’s unclear how long amnesty from the law will last, said Lauren Cox, a city spokesperson.
Lance Haver, a board member of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, noted researchers increasingly believe catching COVID-19 by touching surfaces is unlikely, and he questioned whether permitting no-cash policies was worth the harm to the city’s poor.
“There is a real difficulty in this as an issue for the unbanked and the working poor," he said. “It’s certainly a type of redlining that keeps low-income people out of some stores.”
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