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In search of quarters: Santa Maria residents, retailers and banks feeling pinch of national coin shortage

In search of quarters: Santa Maria residents, retailers and banks feeling pinch of national coin shortage

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It takes nine quarters for Barbara Brown to wash her laundry and eight more to dry her clothes at the laundromat located at her apartment complex on East Park Avenue near Hancock College. 

Brown, 86, is having a hard time finding quarters because of a national coin shortage, making it difficult to do laundry each week because the washer and dryer units only accept quarters. 

A Los Alamos native and retired teacher who taught grade school for 30 years at the Folsom-Cordova Unified School District, Brown relies mostly on her credit union-issued debit card for purchases, but like many, still needs coins for some things. 

Brown gets quarters from a local store and bank, which she doesn't name because she keeps her supply secret. If Brown reveals the names, she said she's afraid others will do the same and her sources will run out of quarters. 

"That would mess up my whole program," Brown said. "I was successful, but I don’t know what will happen next time." 

The coin shortage has gripped the country as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It's not necessarily a supply issue, but rather one of circulation, according to U.S. Mint Director Dave Ryder, who oversees the country's coin manufacturing operations. 

Production of coins at mints decreased due to coronavirus safety measures enacted to protect employees, although it's the lockdown restrictions on businesses that have impacted retail cash transactions the most. 

Ryder urged Americans to use their spare change in a public service announcement on Aug. 5, including depositing them at financial institutions or swapping them for bills at counting machines. 

"Coins aren't circulated through the economy as quickly as they were prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which means coins are not readily available when needed," Ryder said. "You can help get coins moving by using exact change when making purchases. Every little bit helps."

The shortage is having impacts elsewhere in Santa Maria, including at retailers such as Big 5 Sporting Goods located in Town Center West. The store has had a sign posted on its window for about a month asking customers to use exact change. 

A Big 5 cashier, who didn't want to be identified, said coins are hard for the business to acquire due to the shortage. Prior to the pandemic, armored truck deliveries brought enough coins to the store once each week, but now they don't bring enough, she said. 

A cashier at Boone Street Market, who also did not want to be identified, said her store posted a sign asking for exact change but took it down last week. 

Banks are also having a difficult time because of the shortage but are collectively working together to solve the problem, according to Juan Lopez, a Wells Fargo spokesman for branches along the Central Coast.

As a temporary measure, the Federal Reserve on June 15 issued a strategic allocation of coin inventories to reserve banks, limiting the number of coins banks can give to customers.  

"The whole system of flow has kind of stopped," Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said during a Congressional hearing on June 17. "The reserve banks and the banks think about it all the time, but now we're beginning to see those shortages."

When banks need coins, they order them from the Federal Reserve, which delivers them to centralized locations and ultimately to local bank branches. Orders would normally take a few days, but now it's likely to take longer, according to Lopez. 

Additionally, some banks are more impacted by the shortage than others due to the quantity of available businesses making cash transactions. 

"Some banks may have more coins on hand, while rural locations may not," Lopez said. "If we have them available, we'll help as best we can. If we can't, that's just the reality sometimes."

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The following is taken from the Santa Maria Police Department's calls-for-service log and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office daily arrest log. Those appearing as "arrested" are only suspected of the crime indicated but are presumed innocent.

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