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As nationwide coin shortage hits Spokane, business owners say it’s time for change

A sign shown Tuesday on the change machine at Super Wash laundromat in Spokane tells customers that the bill changer is for customers only because of a change shortage.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
A sign shown Tuesday on the change machine at Super Wash laundromat in Spokane tells customers that the bill changer is for customers only because of a change shortage. (JESSE TINSLEY)

Ever since he opened the Super Wash in Spokane in 2005, Steve Cada said, he never needed to replace the quarters that cycled between the rows of washers and dryers and the change machine customers feed bills into.

Until now.

In mid-June, the laundromat’s owner said, he picked up a bag of 4,000 quarters from the bank to replenish his depleted machines. Now he’s making arrangements with the bank for two more of the 50-pound bags after seeing visitors walk out the door with his supply of change amid a nationwide coin shortage – yet another side effect of COVID-19.

“I don’t mind being a supplier of coins in normal times,” Cada said, “but now it’s become more challenging.”

Cada makes it clear that he hasn’t lost money – neighbors have just been using the machine to exchange bills for quarters – but he’s had to put up a sign discouraging the practice after losing thousands of the quarters the machines need to operate. He has looked into switching to a card-operated system but said it would be too costly.

The dearth of coinage is the result of two effects of the pandemic, according to a June 11 statement by the Federal Reserve, the country’s central banking system. The U.S. Mint, which produces new coins, slowed production to protect workers at the same time the shuttered economy disrupted the normal circulation of coins between consumers, business and financial institutions.

In a June 17 hearing of the House Financial Services Committee, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell summed up the problem and urged Americans not to panic.

“What’s happened is that with the partial closure of the economy, the flow of coins through the economy has kind of stopped,” Powell said. “We’re well aware of this. We’re working with the Mint, and we’re working with the Reserve Banks, and as the economy reopens we’re seeing coins begin to move around again.”

But with states rethinking their reopening plans as COVID-19 cases continue to rise, the coin shortage may persist, and businesses in the Spokane area that rely on cash and change are feeling the squeeze.

Jenny Bennett, owner of Jenny’s Cafe in Spokane Valley, said she found out about the shortage just last week when her bank started limiting each customer to $20 in change. That’s not nearly enough to get through a day, Bennett said, and now she’s considering taking the lead of some local grocery stores and rounding up her prices, with the extra going to charity.

“Nothing right now seems shocking,” Bennett said. “Every week it seems there’s a new shortage.”

Kelly McPhee, vice president for communications at Walla Walla-based Banner Bank, said a “perfect storm” of factors came together to cause the first nationwide coin shortage since the 1960s.

“This is not something that typically happens,” she said. “We’ve had a prolonged closure due to the pandemic of the types of businesses who often deal in cash and coin – restaurants, bars, also retail.”

Even businesses that have reopened, McPhee said, are seeing a lower volume of business, and some have asked customers to pay with a card to avoid the risk of transmitting the virus via cash and coins. Those changes, coupled with decreased production by the U.S. Mint, have forced the Federal Reserve – and banks around the country – to ration coins.

“Because of this, there have been some days recently when we received requests from clients for more coin than what we have available,” she said. “In those instances, we work with the clients on a case-by-case basis.”

But McPhee warned Washingtonians not to panic.

“It’s important for people to know this is not a crisis,” McPhee said. “It is something to be aware of, but there is enough coin flowing through our local and our regional economy to meet our everyday needs. If everyone returns to normal – if and when we can do that – this is going to correct itself.”

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