By Kristin Bahner
Due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, all 50 United States are under major disaster emergency declarations for the first time in history.
When emergency declarations are made, most states have laws that automatically go into effect protecting consumers from an exploitative practice called price gouging. These laws generally prohibit dramatic spikes in prices for essential items, and ensure vulnerable Americans are not ripped off when buying critical supplies. However, Minnesota has no such law.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen exorbitant markups on many cleaning supplies and household essentials. An analysis by U.S. PIRG Education Fund found prices for many hand sanitizers and surgical masks surveyed on Amazon spiked by at least 50% at some point since the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency. This is completely unacceptable.
Thankfully, Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order banning price gouging on March 20. The order gave Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office authority to crack down on businesses and online retailers exploiting Minnesotans. Already, the attorney general’s office has received over 700 complaints. Even 3M, the Maplewood-based company that makes N95 masks, has condemned third-party price gougers and sued violators.
Despite all these actions, price gouging is still running rampant, especially on online marketplaces. In recent weeks, we’ve seen boxes of 3M N95 masks for nearly $240 (four times the normal price) and six large toilet paper rolls for $98 (three times the price).
So, what can we do about price gouging if legal action by the attorney general and product manufacturers isn’t enough? First, massive online retailers must take decisive action.
That’s exactly why 16 Minnesota state legislators joined a bipartisan group of nearly 350 state legislators from 45 states in calling on Amazon, eBay, Walmart, Facebook and Craigslist to fulfill their ethical and patriotic duty to prevent price gouging on their platforms. Attorney General Ellison signed a similar letter with the same demands last month.
Specifically, the letter calls on the retailers to:
1. Set policies and enforce restrictions on unconscionable price gouging during emergencies.
2. Trigger price gouging protections independent of, or prior to, an emergency declaration, as price gouging often begins prior to an official declaration.
3. Create and maintain a “Fair Pricing” Page or Portal where consumers can report price gouging incidents to companies directly.
These are all simple, commonsense solutions that the global, multi-billion dollar companies should be able to enact easily. Online retailers must act now to protect Americans during this public health crisis.
To make sure price gouging doesn’t plague Minnesotans beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, legislators must also enact a law prohibiting price gouging as soon as possible. A bill has been introduced in the Minnesota House of Representatives that would bring our state in line with others. Legislators should push to enact this law as soon as possible, but until then, we must all remain vigilant and do our part to combat this virus and to stay strong as a community.
Minnesotans can report instances of price gouging at ag.state.mn.us/office/complaint.asp.
Representative Kristin Bahner represents House District 34B, which includes the cities of Maple Grove and Osseo. She encourages her constituents to share input and ideas with her at the Capitol anytime at 651-296-5502 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.