SARANAC LAKE — You may have seen signs lately at the local banks and credit unions, even the Walgreen’s and Hannaford’s, warning of coin shortages and asking for surplus coins like a kid with an empty piggy bank. Banks and some grocery stores and drug stores are so low on the stuff that they’re even taking bags of coins and separating them into rolls for you, though they’d vastly prefer that you do the rolling yourself.
Signs went up about a month ago, when area businesses first started noticing their empty coffers. A sign is taped to the front doors of the Community Bank on Broadway. At Adirondack Bank on Main Street, they’ll take your temperature and your picture — and hand you a stack of paper coin wrappers.
The shortage, which is nationwide, is not technically a shortage — there are plenty of coins, just as there is plenty of toilet paper — but a disruption in circulation caused, as so many other disruptions have been, by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We tend to take coin in, then ship it back to the Federal Reserve,” said Heather DeForest, chief executive officer of the Tri-Lakes Federal Credit Union in Saranac Lake. “The Fed doesn’t just make new coin.”
Banks and credit unions regularly get coins from their customers, including those with high volumes of coins such as laundromats, as well as people who accumulate coins and want to exchange them for bills. But with businesses shut down and people staying at home because of the pandemic, that normal circulation has been interrupted.
“You’ve got your flow, and when one piece gets disrupted,” said DeForest, “the whole flow does.”
So businesses started putting out the call for coins, with many also posting signs that suggested patrons use either exact change or electronic payments when making purchases.
Unlike Sweden, which has become a largely cashless society, many operations in the U.S., such as parking meters, vending machines, arcades, laundry services, toll booths and, yes, newspaper racks, rely on a steady supply of coins.
While a scarcity of coins might be little more than an inconvenience for most, it can be a further hardship for the approximately 8 million American households that are unbanked — those who do not have bank accounts of any kind. According to a 2017 survey by the FDIC, as many as 25% of Americans are unbanked or underbanked.
Further clogging the supply chain, the U.S. Mint decreased the production of new coins due to measures put in place to protect employees during the pandemic. In response to the disruption, on June 15 the Fed began rationing the coin supply and in July convened a U.S. Coin Task Force.
The Mint has been operating at full capacity since mid-June, minting nearly 1.6 billion coins that month, with plans to mint 1.65 billion coins each month for the remainder of the year. Normally, the production rate is 1 billion coins per month.
The Federal Reserve, according to its website, “is confident that the coin inventory issues will resolve once the economy opens more broadly” and normal circulation patterns are reestablished. But folks at the local banks aren’t anticipating that will happen soon.
In the meantime, your bank will probably roll the contents of your piggy bank for you. But they’d really prefer that you do it yourself, and will happily provide a stack of papers in various coin sizes if you ask.
Meanwhile, the task force is urging the public to help, by spending your coins, depositing them at financial institutions and redeeming them at kiosks, and using the hashtag -getcoinmoving on social media.