COVID-19 surcharges surprise consumers

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COVID-19 has changed so much about the way businesses need to operate, including new requirements for social distancing, limited customer capacity, and a reorganization of processes meant to limit interactions with workers. But some of the kinks are still being worked out by businesses as states continue moving through different phases of reopening across the nation.

One major hurdle many are facing involves the additional costs of complying with social distancing and new sanitation requirements. After all, it only makes sense that consumer-facing businesses will need to buy more PPE, pay more for cleaning equipment and supplies and find a way to pay for those plexiglass barriers every supermarket, retail store and restaurant seems to be putting up.

Introducing the COVID-19 surcharge

Rachel Gower of the Upper Hand Salon in Houston, Texas told ABC 13 of Houston that’s exactly what she encountered as she prepared to open her business. In addition to the weeks spent planning the opening, Gower said she needed to spend thousands of dollars on equipment and supplies for sanitation. As a result, she began adding a $3 sanitation surcharge to each customer’s bill.

This same scenario is playing out around the country, with restaurants, hair salons and even dentist’s offices adding charges to cover the additional costs of sanitation and PPE.

In a statement, the American Dental Association even asked third-party payers like insurance companies to consider altering their payments to account “for the increasing cost of personal protective equipment that dentists are using to protect themselves, their staff and patients.”

Even FedEx is tacking on a new 30 cents in shipping costs to account for COVID-19.

The reality is, coronavirus surcharges are likely here to stay for as long as this virus lingers, creating more costs for businesses who must comply to keep their doors open and their customers safe.

With that in mind, individuals who are just now stepping out to get a haircut, have their nails done or sit down for a meal for the first time might as well get used to it.

Are COVID-19 surcharges legal?

Businesses have always been able to raise their prices to keep up with inflation and their own growing costs, and surcharges tacked onto bills as the result of coronavirus are no exception. The key to legally passing on the costs of PPE and increased sanitation likely lies in the disclosure of these charges, according to Lynne Kizis, an attorney with Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer in New Jersey.

“I do think that a fair reading of existing statutes supports that retail businesses should prominently disclose a PPE surcharge,” Kizis told NJ.com. “If one has to disclose the total selling price of merchandise, or a consumer commodity, an undisclosed surcharge could very well be a violation.”

How much can businesses charge?

Considering federal and state laws and regulations were never written with a pandemic in mind, there is no cap on the coronavirus surcharge amount a business can charge. So far, however, most businesses nationwide seem to be charging a few bucks or a percentage of your bill.

For example, the South Florida Sun Sentinel recently highlighted restaurants throughout South Florida that are tacking on COVID-surcharges as a percentage, usually around 3 percent.

With that in mind, consumers can always ask a business if they’re charging a surcharge before sitting down for a meal or another service. If you decide you would rather not pay an additional 3 percent to have a dinner out or $3 extra for a pedicure, you certainly don’t have to.

Other credit card surcharges up in the air

Interestingly, other credit card fees have come into question due to the financial impacts of coronavirus. Earlier this year, the National Restaurant Association asked the President and Congress to reduce interchange fees charged each time a credit card is used for payment.

These fees, which are also called swipe fees, range from 2 to 4 percent of each transaction according to the National Retail Federation (NRF).

The NRF also notes that “many retailers have cited swipe fees as their second or third highest cost behind wages and employee health benefits.”

With some industries like retail and dining reporting low profit margins to begin with, it’s easy to see how swipe fees could be especially problematic at the moment, with additional costs from COVID-19 also chipping away at profits.

What form of payment is best if you’re charged a surcharge?

If you find yourself facing a COVID-19 surcharge when you pay for a product or service, you don’t need to worry too much about which form of payment to use. You can pay with cash or debit if you want, but you can also use a credit card. Coronavirus surcharges are added to your bill right along with taxes you’re charged for each purchase. As a result, your coronavirus surcharge will be included in the grand total of what you are charged, meaning you won’t have to pay it separately.

With that in mind, you can always consider using a rewards credit card if you want to earn points or miles on every dollar you spend — including coronavirus surcharges. If you’re going to pay more for various products and services while the pandemic runs its course, you might as well get something in return.

Just keep in mind that credit cards charge interest if you carry a balance from month to month. To earn rewards and actually end up “ahead,” you’ll need to pay your balance in full every month — and no matter what.