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.
The crash of the electronic benefits transfer card system was evident at food retailers throughout the Akron area. Late Saturday, Xerox announced that access had been restored.
“It’s been down all day. It’s still down,” Jim Trout, executive vice president of the Akron-based Acme supermarket chain, said Saturday afternoon. “Yes, it affects Acme. Yes, it affects sales.”
The Aldi supermarket at South Main Street and Thornton Avenue had a handwritten sign out front telling shoppers that the Ohio Direction Card system was not working. Two employees said some people left after seeing the sign but they did not know how many shoppers had been impacted.
At Dave’s Middlebury Market off East Exchange Street, signs at the entrance warned shoppers that the EBT system was down statewide.
U.S. Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Courtney Rowe underscored that the outage is not related to the government shutdown.
Xerox worked throughout the day to restore the program to normal.
“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.”
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. Colman, who receives the benefits, called a toll-free 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 flier discounts next week.
Wasmer said the affected states also included Alabama, California, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia.
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 was still down.
Johnson said Xerox was notifying retailers to revert to the manual system, meaning customers could spend up to $50 until the system is back online. Recipients of the state’s supplemental nutrition assistance program, or SNAP, were urged to call the toll-free number on the back of the card so Xerox could guide them through the purchase process.
Unable to pay
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. “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 said he had been told by Xerox 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 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.
Beacon Journal staff writer Jim Mackinnon contributed to this report.