Get Your Coins Moving: Some Parts of the US Face a Shortage of Quarters

Heidi Thorsen owns the coin-only laundromat "Lunar Laundry" in Seattle — and discovered an odd phenomenon, reports the Seattle Times. "Thorsen went to her bank to replenish her coin supply. But the bank was so short on change, she could only buy a few $10, 40-quarter rolls, and most often there were none at all..." Thorsen speaks for many in the local coin-operated economy, a diverse, somewhat old-school community of businesses and consumers that has been in a state of agitation since COVID-19 interrupted the normal cycle of coins. "It's something I have to think about all the time," says Queen Anne resident Dan White, whose apartment has a coin-operated laundry. Early in the pandemic, White had to frantically group-text friends to secure enough quarters for a weekend's wash... "People that aren't using quarters for a laundry machine have no idea that this is even happening." Indeed, the Great Quarter Shortage has exposed another social and economic divide as a subset of consumers and businesses must scramble to replace what COVID has made scarce. The result is a kind of two-bit black market, rife with clever workarounds and conspiracy theories, and no small amount of social friction... Technically, there is no quarter shortage, in Seattle or anywhere. The U.S. Mint produced nearly 24% more coins in 2020 than in 2019, despite a temporary pandemic slowdown, and continues to roll them out at "near record levels," according to Mint officials. The problem, federal officials say, is many of the roughly 55 billion quarters estimated to be in circulation have been stranded by the pandemic in places — under your couch cushions, say, or in your console coin holder — where the coin-operated economy can't touch them. It's a smaller, less visible version of the supply chain crisis, but with quarters instead of cargo containers. Early in the pandemic, many consumers and businesses stopped using physical currency out of safety concerns. Overall cash purchases in 2020 dropped nearly 27% compared with 2019, while the rate at which coins and bills change hands fell more than 70% — the steepest drop on record — and hasn't recovered, Federal Reserve data show. As coins accumulated in homes and handbags, retailers that were typically quarter-negative even before COVID went even further in the red and made even more frequent coin purchases from banks. Consumers, meanwhile, were also less frequently hauling in their caches of spare change to banks or coin kiosks. As the circulation of coins slowed, and as the reopening economy led banks to order more coins from the Federal Reserve, the country's central bank saw its own coin inventory fall below normal levels. In June 2020, the Reserve imposed a "temporary" restriction on coin orders by private banks that, despite a brief reprieve this year, remains in effect. Some banks restricted their own coin sales, even to big retail customers — and many still do. The bank is "shorting us on our order a lot," says Dave Garcia, assistant store director at Ballard Market, which, like many retailers, has suspended its own quarter sales to consumers... It's a problem for the "unbanked" without debit cards and the small-business owners who depend on them and "can't afford to upgrade to digital payments and the touchless economy." (And the article points out this includes laundromats, more than half of which are still coin-operated in the U.S.) The CEO of the Coin Laundry Association even tells the Times that some laundromats have resorted to installing a kill switch on their change machines, just so if noncustomers try to make change, "they just cut the power to the machine." The owner of the Lunar Laundry ultimately installed a digital system that lets customers pay through a phone app after scanning a washer's QR code. A bar owner in Seattle even believes a conspiracy theory that the government is prolonging the shortage to push everyone to digital currencies so their purchases can all be tracked. But in fact, the Times notes, "Solving the quarter crisis has become a top priority of the Federal Reserve, where a specially empaneled U.S. Coin Task Force is working to persuade Americans to spend those quarters and other coins back into circulation..."

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