Coin shortage sign

Signs such as this one at an area Winn-Dixie are common throughout the area as a national coin shortage forces retailers to manage their supplies of the currency.

Used to be that getting “nickel and dimed” was a bad thing.

These days, many banks and retailers gladly coin the phrase, hoping someone will walk through their doors toting a big jar of small change.

Of the many unexpected effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, few have been quite as surprising as the nation’s utter lack of coins. One doesn’t have to look hard locally to find proof of this. At grocery stores, gas stations and retail outlets throughout the area, signs can be seen at the cash register asking patrons to use correct change or debit and credit cards to complete their transactions.

“We put those signs up around a month ago,” said Jeff Pouk, manager of Winn-Dixie at the Kings Crossing Shopping Center in Port Charlotte. “But it really hasn’t been that big of a deal. We haven’t had any problems.”

Winn-Dixie is one of several businesses that are using the shortage to help the community. More on that in a bit.

How did this happen?

The U.S. Mint, makers of the country’s coins, decreased staffing in response to the pandemic. Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell told a House committee on June 17 that the production hiccup, along with the economy’s slowdown, interrupted the typical distribution of coins around the country.

Congress was not satisfied by that explanation, so two weeks after Powell’s appearance on the Hill, he created the U.S. Coin Task Force. Representatives of the American Bankers Association, the Fed, the Mint, the armored car industry, food distribution and other sectors spent July studying the problem. The group issued a statement on July 28.

Their findings?

It’s your fault.

“Many have referred to this as a shortage; however it is not,” the statement read. “There is approximately $48 billion in coin already in circulation, most of which is sitting dormant inside America’s 128 million households.

“The nation’s coin is pooling in change jars, in car cup holders and in shuttered businesses,” the statement continued, “making it difficult for the businesses of this country to get the coin that they need to support cash transactions.”

The inability to make those transactions has allegedly turned one group of restaurants into scofflaws.

A lawsuit filed this past week in Pennsylvania accuses a group of Chipotle outlets of dubious activity. The suit accused the restaurants of rounding up at the cash register, ostensibly to avoid giving out coins. One customer alleged she received $4 instead of $4.49 after paying a $15.51 tab with a $20 bill. Another customer at a different location said they received $11 in change instead of $11.28 after paying an $8.72 charge with a $20 bill.

Frank Salpietro, a lawyer representing one of seven complaints that have been forwarded to the Pennsylvania state attorney told Pittsburgh television station KDKA he fully expected Chipotle to use the coin shortage as its defense.

“What we’ve learned is that they are telling people after they order their food and give their money to the cashier (is) that they don’t have any change,” Salpietro said. “So they are not going to be able to give you the change.”

Before more businesses turn into criminal enterprises, there is something regular folks can do: Turn their coins into cash at a Coinstar or other like kiosks, which can be found at many grocery stores and some box stores, such as Walmart. The self-service machines sort and count coins then give the customer the option of taking a receipt to a cash register for redemption or receiving the total on a gift card.

Such machines do charge a service fee that varies from one to another. If you don’t want to get short-changed in that manner, then head to the bank. Some banks are even offering to pay extra.

Back to Winn-Dixie. While the store has put up signs asking for patrons to use correct change, there is an ulterior motive. Winn-Dixie, as well as other local retailers such as CVS, are asking customers to round up their bills to the nearest dollar at the card reader and give that extra change to charities, such as food banks.

“People are mostly using plastic these days, anyway,” Pouk said. “It’s easy. It’s not all that much and it makes you feel like you’ve done a good thing.”

In time, this too shall pass. Change is already in the air.

In an effort to reach the cool kids, the Task Force is pushing #getcoinmoving on Twitter and Instagram. Perhaps of more use, the U.S. Mint is back to full capacity and will crank out 1.6 billion coins each month through the end of the year.


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