State: Taxpayers don’t have to pay for food stamps glitch

For Wal-Mart shoppers in Mansfield and Springhill, the chain’s “always low prices” got ridiculously low following a glitch in the food stamp system.

The good news: Taxpayers aren’t on the hook for what was likely an expensive mistake for the big box retailer, state officials said Monday.

A failure at Xerox Corp. took down the electronic benefit transfer system Saturday for several hours in 17 states, including Louisiana.

Media in Maine, Maryland, Florida and other states affected by the glitch reported retailers in those state simply turned away EBT users.

Others followed the emergency procedure that allows up to $50 in authorized purchases per patron.

At Wal-Marts in Mansfield and Springhill, cashiers allowed EBT recipients to make purchases even though they could not check their card balances. The cashiers stored the transactions so they could run them later when the system rebounded.

Wal-Mart’s policy apparently turned an October Saturday into Black Friday.

An unknown number of customers emptied the shelves, piled their carts high with food and spent well beyond their EBT debit card limits.

Smartphones captured images of the grocery-laden carts that were abandoned once the food stamp system came back online and balances could be checked.

Springhill Mayor Carroll Breaux said the shoppers and Wal-Mart share the blame for what happened.

“I have not discussed any of it with Wal-Mart or the chief of police. That’s Wal-Mart’s decision,” Breaux said.

Springhill is in state Sen. Robert Adley’s district.

Adley, R-Benton, said what happened is no different than writing a bad check.

He said people generally know how much they have to spend before they step into a store.

“Honesty is the best policy, and I don’t know what else to say. It appears Wal-Mart put people on an honor system, and it looks like people abused it,” Adley said.

Whether the abusers will suffer repercussions is unclear.

Springhill Police Chief Will Lynd told at least one media outlet that Wal-Mart’s corporate office told him to release a woman who pushed a cart with $700 in groceries up to a cash register, despite having less than 50 cents on her EBT card.

The woman left the food at the store and was allowed to go home.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Kayla Whaling said Monday the chain is looking further into the situation before deciding whether to press charges.

She would not specify how many dollars Wal-Mart lost, but said it had no material impact on the chain’s U.S. business.

“We did continue to accept EBT cards so our customers could continue to buy food and other necessities for their families. The two incidents that did occur in Louisiana are isolated,” Whaling said.

In Louisiana, more than 380,000 households receive benefits that help with the purchase of groceries. In September, 866,000 people in Louisiana benefited from EBT.

Xerox, a contractor for EBT, reported the computer glitch affected Alabama, California, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia.

Trey Williams, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, said emergency procedures are in place for a system problem.

He said the procedures instruct retailers to call Xerox for authorization on up to $50 in purchases per card holder.

He said the cards cannot carry a negative balance.

Any purchases made beyond the balance eventually resulted in an insufficient funds message to retailers, Williams said.

Williams said Xerox and retailers will have to decide how to address any purchases allowed outside the emergency procedures.

“No funds from our standpoint were utilized. The safeguards the state had in place worked,” Williams said. “Any recoupment would be from a retailer standpoint.”