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Cash is still king in unincorporated King County

caption: Seattle now has the highest minimum wage of any major city in the United States
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Seattle now has the highest minimum wage of any major city in the United States

Cash is here to stay. King County leaders decided this week that some businesses will have to accept cash from customers, but there is some nuance around this new rule.

The law comes in response to the rise of cashless businesses including “just walk out” retailers like Amazon Go, which use tech to track purchases.

The King County Council voted 5-4 Tuesday to require businesses in unincorporated parts of the county to accept cash, such as restaurants and retailers. The businesses will be required to accept cash payments up to $200.

Around 4 in 10 Americans now seldom use cash, according to a recent Pew poll. Cards and electronic transactions have increasingly become preferred, but around 2% of Washingtonians do not have bank accounts or credit cards, often called "unbanked."

“It is humiliating to have money in my pocket and not even be able to buy a pastry on the way home from work because I'm hungry. This makes me feel unworthy and discarded by society at large,” resident Karen Taylor said in a public hearing before the vote.

The goal of the new law is to make sure these residents who only have access to cash can still purchase what they need.

According to the FDIC, “unbanked” rates are higher among certain groups including “lower-income households, less-educated households, Black households, Hispanic households, working-age households with a disability, and single-mother households.”

“These are all communities that by and large already have less power, less ability to just be able to get their food and essentials unless they pay by cash,” said county Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who sponsored the bill.

Kohl-Welles said the law is also designed for people who prefer to pay in cash because they don’t like to be tracked when they make purchases.

Critics on the council and in a public hearing on Tuesday expressed concerns about how the law could affect small businesses.

“A small business operating in an area that may not have a lot of people around or may be unsafe for a variety of reasons is a real thing,” Councilmember Claudia Balducci said before voting against the new law.

In one amendment to the new law that passed on Tuesday, businesses with security or other “hardship” concerns about having cash on hand could apply for an exemption.

The new law requiring a cash payment option will apply only to areas like White Center, in unincorporated King County, that don’t have their own governments. It will apply to in-person transactions only, and not to phone, mail, internet sales, or automated kiosks. Some other types of businesses that provide services such as barber shops or insurance agencies will also be exempt from the new law.

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