EBT failure worsened by 'retailer confusion'

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Updated: 10/14/2013 11:12 pm
TUPELO, Miss. (WTVA) -- It's something families on a fixed income didn't want to hear: their electronic benefit transfer cards weren't working.

However, in the wake of Saturday's EBT system failure across 17 states, many retailers in north Mississippi said they didn't know what to do when something like this happens.

"When the system is down and they can't get immediate access, there is an emergency voucher program," Mississippi Department of Human Services spokesperson David Noble said.

And that's where the confusion takes place.

One store manager at Walden's Supermarket in Booneville said they weren't able to help anybody Saturday because the procedures they usually follow during a system outage -- calling to verify customers' card balances -- would not work.

That means on a supermarket's busiest day and one of the busiest of the month for food stamps, no one with an EBT account was able to purchase anything.

Several store managers in Lee County also said they weren't able to get through to the number provided either.

Noble says that's because those procedures followed weren't the ones for the emergency voucher program, but rather what retailers are supposed to do when local EBT systems experience failure.

It's a different story when the entire state's EBT system fails.

Noble said this emergency voucher program guarantees that a person will get $40 per day from the retailer, even if they can't prove they've got enough in their EBT account.

No verification is required.

"It is in good faith on the household's part, on the cardholder's part, because if the $40 is not there, the transaction will reject and the vendor, which is Xerox, will become liable," Noble said.

So whose fault is it that many retailers don't know what to do in these situations?

"All retailers have to follow the same rules. It would be going against what they agreed to do as a vendor, and as an approved EBT retailer with the USDA," Noble said.

He adds it would be the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Xerox's responsibility -- not the Mississippi Department of Human Services -- to make sure the retailer understands the process.

A Xerox spokesperson said the company is well aware of the emergency voucher system which many states use if the EBT system fails.

In the end, though, the EBT customer bears the brunt of this retailer confusion because many who tried to purchase groceries Saturday had to be turned away.
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