Walmart food stamps glitch causes chaos in La. stores, EBT system fixed

October 15, 2013 11:26:53 AM PDT
A computer glitch at the vendor that services EBT that had caused people in 16 states to postpone their grocery shopping has been fixed.

The problem stemmed from a loss of power at Xerox's data center. Xerox handles food assistance debit cards for many states.

In Louisiana, the Department of Children and Family Services reports that all services have been restored.

DCFS said in a statement: "The contractor that maintains SNAP EBT services for the state of Louisiana has informed DCFS that some store systems that handle EBT transactions have returned to service. The contractor expects additional stores to do the same."

"The multi-state system outage, which began at approximately 11:00 a.m. Saturday, October 12, was the result of a technical issue and was not connected to the federal government shutdown."

While transactions in Louisiana were impacted by the outage, the systems that DCFS uses to track EBT card usage and identify fraud were still in place.

When the outage occurred, carts loaded with groceries were left abandoned in store aisles.

"Honestly, I do believe in our system, I do think it's a privilege to get that, to abuse it would mean that one apple spoils the bunch. And if that system goes down, that's 150 I don't get a month to get groceries, to help pay for groceries, I don't want to see that happen because that would just put me in a bigger bind than I'm already in," said one user.

Shelves were cleared and aisles were clogged with carts after the food stamp system went offline. Walmart allowed people to continue shopping despite a malfunction that prevented the store from seeing EBT card balances. That's when dozens of people decided to go grocery shopping.

Police were called to control the crowds, and some even compared it to Black Friday. When shoppers realized they could only buy $100 worth of food, they abandoned their carts. One man said he felt badly for the workers who had to clean up the mess.

"I was just thinking, 'Oh my God. I'm just glad my mom doesn't work here anymore, because that's the only thing I could think about was those workers are gonna have to restock all that stuff," he said.

Xerox, a vendor for the EBT system, says the glitch was caused by a power outage during a routine backup test in one of the company's locations.

Xerox spokeswoman Karen Arena confirmed via email Saturday afternoon that some Electronic Benefits Transfer systems are experiencing temporary connectivity issues. She said technical staff is addressing the issue and expects the system to be restored soon. U.S. Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Courtney Rowe underscored that the outage is not related to the government shutdown.

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, however he said that its electronic benefits transfer card system is still down.

Johnson said Xerox notified retailers to revert to the manual system, meaning SNAP customers could spend up to $50 until the system was back online.

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's a lot of families who are not going to be able to feed children because the system is being maintenanced," Colman said. "No one should put maintenance in during the daytime."

She planned to reach out to local officials.

"I'm trying to reach out to everybody because I'm not thinking of me an adult who can figure out things. I'm thinking of the simpler person in the world who is sitting there trying to just do basic shopping to feed their kids. 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.

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.

"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.

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.

David Akerly, a spokesman for Michigan's Department of Human Services, also confirmed that residents in his state have reported problems using their cards.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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