After almost 10 minutes of standing in line at a coffee shop, Ritchie Torres realized he only had cash in his pocket — a form of payment no longer accepted by this store.
"It was a humiliating experience," he said. "I remember wondering aloud, how could a business refuse to accept cash, which is legal tender?"
Torres is a City Council member in New York. He says his constituents, especially seniors, have also complained about a spurt of cashless stores. So Torres led the charge on a bill to ban businesses from rejecting cash, which New York's city leaders passed almost unanimously last month.
A similar ban is slated for a hearing in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 13. In the past year, Philadelphia, San Francisco and the state of New Jersey have also banned cashless stores — a rare case of governments fighting a tech trend before it spreads far. Massachusetts has required establishments to accept cash since 1978.
"A cashless economy is not an inclusive economy," said Tazra Mitchell, policy director at the research and advocacy group DC Fiscal Policy Institute.
Excluding people from paying with cash means "essentially discriminating against people who are low-income, people who are homeless, also undocumented," she said.
Getting a credit or debit card often requires a form of ID, a utility or another bill, money to deposit and a financial history. Mitchell said that in Washington, D.C., nearly a third of residents rely on cash every day because they don't have a card or even a bank account.
In fact, as cities have cracked down on the cashless economy and spurred new conversations about whom it leaves out, some of the biggest names that tried going cashless — Amazon's automated convenience store Go and salad chain Sweetgreen — have reversed their policies in favor of accepting cash.
"Going cashless had ... positive results, but it also had the unintended consequence of excluding those who prefer to pay or can only pay with cash," Sweetgreen officials wrote in a Medium post.
These reversals show that the market is working to respond to its communities, said National Retail Federation General Counsel Stephanie Martz. She said new laws are "a solution in search of a problem" as the number of businesses to go cashless is very small — in part because each card transaction comes with a fee the business has to pay.
"With cash, we can feel this emotional attachment and we value what we have a bit more," she said.
"We don't think that in five years laws that ban stores from going cashless are going to look smart," Martz said, envisioning a near future where everyone has access to digital payments thanks to advances in financial technology. In that future, she argued, banning businesses from going cashless could hamstring them from becoming more efficient.