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EBT problems caused by software issue, unrelated to federal shutdown

A software outage that affected Massachusetts and 16 other states on Saturday left Electronic Benefits Transfer recipients unable to pay for groceries and other bills for several hours, with some fearing that the program had run out of money because of the federal government shutdown.

The outage, which affected nearly 1 million in Massachusetts, was caused by a backup test of the Xerox Corp.’s systems Saturday morning, Xerox spokeswoman Jennifer Wasmer said. It was not related to the government shutdown.

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Xerox manages the cards used in some states for EBT and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, as a private contractor.

By Saturday evening, the system had been partially restored, according to the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance. And late Saturday night, Xerox announced access had been fully restored.

‘‘Restarting the EBT system required time to ensure service was back at full functionality,’’ ’’ Xerox spokeswoman Jennifer Wasmer said in an e-mail to the Associated Press.

Mary Ellen Thompson, who lives with her adult son and his 12-year-old daughter in New Bedford, said she tried to take out $100 in cash using her EBT card to pay her landlord Saturday morning. “I couldn’t get any money out at all, I couldn’t get a dime out of it,” she said.

At first, Thompson said she thought the federal shutdown and concerns about government debt may have spurred a run on the banks. Then her son called and said he could not withdraw money for groceries, and neither could other EBT and SNAP recipients.

“Which leaves us here right now without any money, whatsoever, without any ability to do our shopping,” she said. “I know this sounds horrible, but somewhere along the line, the little people get shafted again.”

Matt Kitsos, a spokesman for the state transitional assistance agency, said because the outage was with the Xerox system, there was not much the state could do.

“We issue the benefits to our clients on behalf of [the US Department of Agriculture], and who actually puts the benefit on the card is Xerox,” he said. “We handle eligibility, we handle casework, but the technical side of it is Xerox.”

The state agency published the Xerox customer help line on its Twitter account and kept dispatchers of the Massachusetts 211 information and resource hotline updated.

The other states affected were Alabama, California, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia, the Associated Press reported.

In a Market Basket in Biddeford, Maine, shoppers left behind carts of groceries, Barbara Colman told the AP. The manager put up a sign saying the EBT system was out of service.

Massachusetts residents who have difficulty with their cards can call the Xerox help line at 800-997-2555.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com.
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