Friday, March 7, 2014
Grocery shoppers who tried to use their food stamp cards, known as Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT, cards, to buy groceries and other items Saturday were turned away at registers because of a glitch in the nationwide system.
Owners of Smaha's Legion Square Market in South Portland's Knightville put a sign on their door Saturday warning customers who use food stamp cards that they were unable to process card transactions. The problems, which occurred in 17 states where the program is operated by Xerox, was blamed on a computer glitch that was corrected later in the day.
Photos by Gordon Chibroski, Staff Photographer
According to the NBC Washington website, the EBT problem is not related to the government shutdown.
Shortly after 5 p.m. Saturday a spokeswoman for Xerox, which runs the benefits system, said it was running again, although some beneficiaries “continue to experience connectivity issues.”
A store manager at the Forest Avenue Hannaford in Portland said the system appeared to be working again in his store after 5 p.m.
Gov. Paul R. LaPage announced Sunday morning that all EBT card services were restored and fully operational.
"Card holders may now access their benefits at locations accepting EBT," he said in a written statement. "There is no need to talk to a customer service representative about the system failure yesterday. All services have been restored."
Maine was one of 17 states affected by the glitch, caused when Xerox ran what it called a routine computer check. Officials stressed that the problem wasn’t caused by the ongoing federal government shutdown.
About 253,000 Maine residents receive food stamps.
Customers at BJ’s Wholesale Club, Hannaford supermarkets and other grocery stores in Maine abandoned their carts at registers and headed home empty-handed earlier Saturday.
“It is very sad for those individuals who count on this,” said Alan Cardinal, owner of Smaha’s Legion Square Market in South Portland.
The problems appeared to vary from person to person and store to store.
Charity Weidemann said workers at the Hannaford store on Forest Avenue told her that they would be able to process her transaction as long as she didn’t go over the balance on her EBT card. Normally, if she exceeds the balance, she can pay cash or remove an item from the transaction, Weidemann said. But on Saturday, some customers who exceeded their balance had the entire transaction cancelled, and were then unable to use their EBT cards for any purchases.
Weidemann said she was worried about getting food for her two young children.
Others said their cards didn’t work at all.
Lou Craig, the owner of College Carry-Out in Augusta, said he had to turn away about 50 customers Saturday because the system wouldn’t accept their EBT cards.
“They just won’t go through,” he said. “It just prints out ‘declined.’ ”
Craig said its a particularly busy time for those using food stamps, because their cards are usually reloaded with cash value from the 10th through the 14th.
The problems appeared to affect grocery stores across Maine and the nation, but some more than others. The Forest Avenue Hannaford in Portland was able to process the EBT cards until about 3:30 p.m. before the service went down while others, such as Smaha’s and College Carry-Out, had experienced problems all day.
All states that use Xerox systems are affected, reported The Associated Press.
Jason Quincannon, acting store manager at Hannaford on Forest Avenue in Portland, said it was hard to turn shoppers away when their cards failed to work. The staff then had to return the groceries to the store shelves.
“These people are having to walk away and figure out another way to feed their kids,” said Quincannon.
Kiera Luke of Portland was helping a disabled friend buy groceries at the BJ’s on Warren Avenue in Portland when his card was rejected. His cart joined a long line of others filled with groceries and abandoned, Luke said.
“This was kind of a rude awakening,” said Luke.
Several stores put up signs warning shoppers that they were having problems with the EBT system.
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, its electronic benefits transfer card system is still down. Johnson said Xerox is notifying retailers to revert to the manual system, meaning SNAP customers can spend up to $50 until the system is back online. SNAP recipients 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 a customer has available in their account. But that information also was unavailable because of the outage, so customers weren’t able to use their cards.
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. 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.
Sheree Powell, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, started receiving calls around 11:30 a.m. about problems with the state’s card systems. More than 600,000 Oklahomans receive SNAP benefits, and money is dispersed to the cards on the first, fifth and 10th days of every month, so the disruption came at what is typically a high-use time for the cards.
Oklahoma also runs a separate debit card system for other state benefits like unemployment payments. Those cards can be used at ATMs to withdraw cash. Powell said Xerox administers both the EBT and debit card systems, and they both were down initially.
Like Ohio’s Johnson, Powell said that Oklahoma’s cash debit card system has since been restored, but the EBT cards for the SNAP program were still down. Powell said Oklahoma’s Xerox representative told them that the problems stemmed from a power failure at a data center, and power had been restored quickly.
“It just takes a while to reboot these systems,” she said, adding that she did not know where the data center was located.
Powell said that some grocery store cashiers had been speculating that the federal government’s shutdown caused the problem, but state officials have been assured that is not the case.
“We are hopeful it will be up this afternoon but we were not given a specific time frame,” she said.
David Akerly, a spokesman for Michigan’s Department of Human Services, also confirmed that residents in his state have reported problems using their cards.
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy and the Associated Press contributed to this story
Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: