The legislation on cashless businesses, first proposed in 2018 by council member David Grosso (I-At Large), is part of a growing resistance against a movement that critics says shuts out people without bank accounts as well as undocumented immigrants.
San Francisco, New York City and Philadelphia have recently started requiring retailers to take cash payments, as do the states of New Jersey and Massachusetts.
“By denying patrons the ability to use cash as a form of payment, businesses are effectively telling lower-income, undocumented and young patrons that they are not welcome in their establishments,” Grosso said Tuesday.
Some businesses say they prefer to avoid cash because of the risk of robbery and to reduce time spent managing hard currency. Sweetgreen, a salad chain founded in D.C., reversed its cashless policy after criticism that it was discriminatory.
If it becomes law, the prohibition would take effect after the public health emergency has been lifted. The novel coronavirus has fueled concerns about exchanging currency hand to hand.
In a letter to the council Tuesday, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said lawmakers should be mindful of the “collective impact” of passing bills affecting businesses amid the pandemic. But she did not threaten to veto the cashless retailers prohibition.
“Though some of these measures may have merit independently, taken together they inject a heightened level of uncertainty into our business climate at a time when we are competing regionally and nationally to retain and attract residents and businesses,” Bowser said in her letter.
The mayor urged the council to withdraw the measure allowing more lawsuits against businesses that fail to pay taxes, as well as bills that would break up the city licensing and permitting agency and ban “noncompete clauses” that prevent people from leaving one employer and quickly landing a job with a competitor.
But the council passed them over her objections.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) feuded with the D.C. Chamber of Commerce over the bill that would allow company insiders to bring tax fraud lawsuits against their employers and win a share of the unpaid taxes. The chamber mobilized members against the bill, asserting that it would lead to “frivolous” litigation, and several lawmakers sympathized with that concern.
Lawmakers ultimately gave final approval to the bill 12 to 1, with Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) the sole no vote, after Mendelson offered changes, including requiring more independent review before a lawsuit could proceed. The bill heads to the mayor for action.
In an email to members, the chamber called the bill’s passage “disappointing” and said amendments “fell short of what we felt was needed to safeguard upstanding residents and local businesses in the District of Columbia.”
Most other bills approved Tuesday were receiving their first of two required votes. Each faces a further vote this month — before it can be sent to Bowser for her signature — to become law.
The council voted unanimously to ban noncompete clauses after the bill’s author, Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), agreed to exempt doctors making more than $250,000 — an attempt to assuage concerns raised by hospitals and the mayor.
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) recused herself from the vote because she works as a law professor for George Washington University, which operates a hospital affected by the bill.
The council also advanced legislation to reorganize the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs — long the source of customer-service complaints from residents and businesses — into two separate agencies: one handling consumer issues, the other construction matters. Lawmakers must include funding for the changes in the budget cycle before the bill can take effect.
The council gave initial approval to a bill requiring employers to give their former workers who lost jobs during the pandemic the opportunity to return once the business is operating again.
But multiple lawmakers said they wanted changes before the second vote to address concerns raised by restaurant owners, who said the bill could complicate their reopening plans. Mendelson signaled that he would make those changes.
Lawmakers unanimously advanced legislation that would allow prisoners who committed crimes before they turned 25 to petition for early release after serving 15 years of their sentences. That bill prompted fierce opposition from prosecutors, who said it was insulting to victims who expected perpetrators to be locked up for decades.
The council rejected amendments proposed by Cheh to require judges to give greater weight to the voices of victims and the nature of the offenses when considering early release.
“It’s inevitably also about the victim, the victim’s family and giving agency to the victim and acknowledgment to the victim about the harms that were caused,” Cheh said.
But council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), the bill’s author, said those changes went against the spirit of the proposal, which focuses not on the original crime but on whether an offender has been rehabilitated and deserves to return to society. He and other lawmakers said Cheh’s amendments would risk exacerbating the racial disparities in sentencing that council members are trying to address.
“It would essentially undermine the entire bill,” said Allen, who shared his own experience as a victim of a crime when he was once held up at gunpoint. “These are all serious offenses.”
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), a former prosecutor, said he appreciated the concerns about victim rights but didn’t think a punitive approach would serve their interests.
“There’s nothing we can do today . . . to address fully the grief that people will feel about having lost a loved one to these heinous crimes,” he said. “Making someone stay in prison longer isn’t going to bring their loved ones back.”
Only Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) joined Cheh in supporting her amendments. After they failed, both lawmakers joined their colleagues in voting for the early-release bill.
The council also gave initial approval to a bill to establish a 19-member commission on ending poverty — which the mayor opposed as “unwieldy” and unnecessary — and final approval for a commission to review and recommend changes to the city tax code.
Dec. 15 is the last day for bills to win final council approval.