June 28, 2016

Intermittent clouds

Millions couldn’t use food stamps

Hawkin’s Market in Medina was “busier than it should have been” Sunday — the day after a computer system outage prevented Ohioans and residents of 16 other states from using their food stamp cards.

Store night manager Ryan Redd said Saturday was a difficult day for staff at the store, at 233 Lafayette Road in Medina. Even though they posted signs about the outage at the doors and cash registers, customers didn’t always notice them.

“Every 15 or 20 minutes I had to have one of the (grocery baggers) bring back a whole cart of abandoned groceries,” he said.

Redd said customers were quite upset, and many thought the problem was caused by the federal government shutdown, he said.

The store serves many low-income customers who receive food assistance benefits, he said.

The number of Medina County food stamp recipients has increased steadily over the last 10 years — more than tripling from 3,657 in July 2003 to 11, 598 this July, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

Statewide, the number of Ohioans receiving food stamp more than doubled, from 884, 678 to 1.8 million over the same 10 years. Nationwide, about 47 million receive food stamps.

People throughout the county found themselves temporarily unable to use their SNAP food stamp cards Saturday morning, after a routine test of backup systems by Xerox Corp. sparked technical problems that shut down the states’ electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, systems.

Xerox said late in the evening that access was restored for all users.

“Restarting the EBT system required time to ensure service was back at full functionality,” spokeswoman Jennifer Wasmer said in an email. An emergency voucher process was available in some of the areas while the problems were occurring, she said.

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

The scene in Medina was replicated in other states.

Shoppers left carts of groceries behind at a packed Market Basket grocery store in Biddeford, Maine, on Saturday because they couldn’t get their benefits, said 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.

Besides Ohio and Maine, states affected by the temporary outage included Michigan, 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.

Johnson said Xerox asked retailers to revert to a manual system, meaning customers could spend up to $50 until the system was restored.

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.

In Clarksdale, Miss. — one of the poorest parts of one of the poorest states in the nation — cashier Eliza Shook said dozens of angry 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.

Mississippi Department of Human Services director Rickey Berry confirmed that Xerox, the state’s EBT vendor, had had computer problems.

“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.

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.

Powell said Oklahoma’s Xerox representative told them that the problems stemmed from a power failure at a data center.

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