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Food stamp debit cards not working in many states

Published: Saturday, Oct. 12 2013 9:20 p.m. MDT

In this photo taken Thursday, Feb. 4, 2010, an Electronic benefit Transfer card, food stamp recipients use to purchase food, is seen at the Sacramento County Economic Development Department in Sacramento, Calif.

Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press

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People in Ohio, Michigan and 15 other states found themselves unable to use their food stamp debit-style cards on Saturday, after a routine test of backup systems by vendor Xerox Corp. resulted in a system failure.

"While the electronic benefits system is now up and running, beneficiaries in the 17 affected states continue to experience connectivity issues to access their benefits. Technical staff is addressing the issue and expect the system to be restored soon," Xerox spokeswoman Jennifer Wasmer said in an emailed statement. "Beneficiaries requiring access to their benefits can work with their local retailers who can activate an emergency voucher system where available. We appreciate our clients' patience while we work through this outage as quickly as possible."

U.S. Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Courtney Rowe underscored that the outage is not related to the government shutdown.

Shoppers left carts of groceries behind at a packed Market Basket grocery store in Biddeford, Maine, because they couldn't get their benefits, said fellow shopper Barbara Colman, of Saco, Maine. The manager put up a sign saying the EBT system was not in use. Colman, who receives the benefits, called an 800 telephone line for the program and it said the system was down due to maintenance, she said.

"That's a problem. There are a lot of families who are not going to be able to feed children because the system is being maintenanced," Colman said. She planned to reach out to local officials. "You don't want children going hungry tonight because of stupidity," she said.

Colman said the store manager promised her that he would honor the day's store flyer discounts next week.

Ohio's cash and food assistance card payment systems went down at 11 a.m., said Benjamin Johnson, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. Ohio's cash system has been fixed, but he said that its electronic benefits transfer card system is still down. Johnson said Xerox is notifying retailers to revert to the manual system, meaning customers can spend up to $50 until the system is back online. Recipients of the state's supplemental nutrition assistance program, or SNAP, should call the 800 number on the back of their card, and Xerox will guide them through the purchase process.

Illinois residents began reporting problems with their cards — known as LINK in that state — on Saturday morning, said Januari Smith, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Human Services.

Smith said that typically when the cards aren't working retailers can call a backup phone number to find out how much money customers have available in their account. But that information also was unavailable because of the outage, so customers weren't able to use their cards.

"It really is a bad situation but they are working to get it fixed as soon as possible," Smith said. "We hope it will be back up later today."

In Clarksdale, Miss. — one of the poorest parts of one of the poorest states in the nation — cashier Eliza Shook said dozens of customers at Corner Grocery had to put back groceries when the cards failed Saturday because they couldn't afford to pay for the food. After several hours, she put a sign on the front door to tell people about the problem.

"It's been terrible," Shook said in a phone interview. "It's just been some angry folks. That's what a lot of folks depend on."

Mississippi Department of Human Services director Rickey Berry confirmed that Xerox, the state's EBT vendor, had computer problems. He said he had been told by midafternoon that the problems were being fixed.

"I know there are a lot of mad people," Berry said.

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