SIRE 2020: Researching Business and Legal Ethics During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By James Meng, W’23

Participating in the Wharton Social Impact Research Experience (SIRE) was one of the most rewarding and refreshing academic experiences from my freshman year. I would never have imagined that in my first year I could get to work on such an independent, impactful research project. Programs like SIRE are perfect representations of the willingness of the University of Pennsylvania to support its students in their respective academic endeavors.

I had initially applied to the program with a proposal to travel to Chicago and collect data on the different demographics present at cashless vs. cash-taking businesses. I was inspired by Philadelphia’s recent ban on cashless businesses and wanted to see if there was any statistical evidence supporting the notion that cashless businesses were exclusionary to certain groups. However, the COVID-19 pandemic quickly shifted my plans and forced me to rethink my research approach. After consulting with my faculty advisor, we decided it would be best to step away from the statistical analysis and instead focus more on the business ethics and legal standards by which banning cashless businesses could be upheld. I couldn’t have been happier with this change of direction, as it allowed me to be more creative with my input and analysis.

I then dived into several weeks of familiarizing myself with the literature surrounding public accommodations, discrimination, and cashless businesses. I had to know everything from the main reasons why lawmakers were pushing for bans of cashless businesses, the counterarguments to these reasons, and how laws aiming to prevent discrimination had been upheld in the past. Over time, it became clear that one successful example of preventing discrimination in public accommodations was in the case of disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act laid out measures that businesses like restaurants had to abide by, so long as they didn’t cause an “undue hardship.”

Applying this thinking to the situation of businesses refusing cash, I then set out on a rebuttal analyzing the various reasons merchants had in pursuing cashless transactions. Among the considerations were operational efficiency, mitigated crime risk, public health (relating to minimal touch shopping during the pandemic), and social issues such as environmentalism. The final weeks of my research consisted of analyzing whether accepting cash would truly pose an undue burden on merchants, and whether the above reasons were enough to warrant lifting bans on cashless businesses.

Without the COVID pandemic, I would never have analyzed the literature surrounding public accommodations. I also would never have thought to construct my own argument. I could have been distracted by collecting raw data instead of digging deeper into the reasons for and against cashless businesses, and whether they could persist through legal challenge. Although my research topic will inevitably evolve over the coming years as the more businesses transition to cashless models, I’m proud of the research I performed and the amazing learning experience I had.