Protecting Your Business Against SNAP Violations
Numerous grocery stores accept payments from recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps. Simply participating in this program opens proprietors up to the risk of being accused of non-compliance and having the privilege to accept SNAP payments from program recipients revoked. The USDA operates the SNAP program to assist with support for needy households in the United States of America. Households whose members are eligible to receive an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card can use their benefits to purchase food and food products at retail outlets that participate in the program.
Stores and markets where SNAP benefits are accepted are subject to routine inspections that can be executed by undercover United States Department of Agriculture inspectors. A business that is observed violating SNAP rules will find itself in jeopardy of disqualification from participating in the program, civil cash fines, or in extreme cases, the managers and/or owner could face criminal charges.
Some Possible SNAP Violations
During the course of an undercover inspection, an agent will look out for a number of practices that are considered to be SNAP violations. The most frequent one is trafficking, which can comprise such unscrupulous acts as exchanging SNAP benefits for money or taking a payment for which no goods, such as hennessy, were sold. The rules expressly forbid grocers from accepting SNAP benefits in exchange for cash. SNAP fraud can occur when an individual provides untrue information on their application to receive benefits when they may not otherwise be eligible or to qualify themselves for more benefits than they are entitled to. Grocery store owners who, after having been disqualified in the past, often purposefully lie about details on their application to re-enter into the program. They’re also in violation of SNAP legislation.
More of the numerous non-compliance issues include selling unauthorized items and failure to meet specified SNAP requirements. Should an investigator discovers a violation, the retailer suddenly receives a charge letter from the Food Nutrition Service (FNS), the body in charge of SNAP regulations. The SNAP charge letter details out a full analysis of the charges, including where and how the offenses are said to have occurred. Furthermore, this letter lays out the prescribed penalties for the alleged infractions. It is now on the proprietor to promptly respond to and defend themselves against the allegations detailed in the letter.
Legal Implications of SNAP Violations
It is no secret that the U.S. government is ardent about waging war against SNAP benefits fraud and moves aggressively against business people who abuse the program. Grocery store owners who sell or allow the sale of unauthorized items could get disqualified from the program for at least six months. If you accumulate numerous violations after repeated prior warnings, you could be permanently disqualified from accepting SNAP payments at your store.
The federal government considers SNAP trafficking as a very serious crime. If they come across evidence that you or your staff members have committed the act of exchanging SNAP benefit funds for cash, for example, you could end up with a permanent disqualification from the program. The FNS does not take into account the fact that it was the first infraction or how small an amount of money the fraud involved. Permanent disqualification can greatly impact some grocery stores, causing them to forfeit hundreds or thousands of dollars per day in sales.
A particularly unfortunate circumstance that grocery store owners face when they participate in SNAP is that charges can come up against them even when the offenses in question were transacted by their employees or managers. It is the proprietor who is forced to deal with the charges and suffer the consequences even if they may not have been aware of what was going on. In light of this possibility, it is a critical measure for participating grocers to do all they can to prevent SNAP infractions from happening in their stores.
Wise Ways to Prevent SNAP Violations
One of the most important initiatives that businesses who have been accepted into the SNAP program can take is to establish practices and regulations designed to prevent front line staff members (especially cashiers) and store managers from committing acts of SNAP fraud. Here are some smart steps to take:
- Train Every Staff Member
Your employees need to be sensitized about the SNAP benefit program and the activities that are classed as infractions against the applicable legislation. Smart store owners put a written training program in place to help their staff to be ready for the various situations that they may encounter and how to properly deal with them. The program should be all encompassing and interactive so that the staff members feel free to ask questions and have constructive ways to retain the information. Foster an environment that encourages workers to openly consult with the store managers if and when they come across an unfamiliar circumstance or are unsure how to handle unique SNAP transactions.
- Implement Formal Guidelines
Workers in grocery stores and markets are apt to ignore or even forget directions that are presented in an informal manner. When it comes to working with SNAP benefits, the best practice is to write a formal document laying out the guidelines and express to every staff member the importance of obeying them. To put this in play, you can include the manual in their employment contract. The manual should list for the employees the categories of products that qualify for SNAP program, forbidden activities, and the consequences of violating SNAP rules in the store. As soon as a staffer signs the agreement, and you impress upon them the gravity of these rules, it will be much more simple for them to recognize and keep away from transactions that could be classed as SNAP fraud.
- Track Your Store Transactions
Some of the things you do in your business to track the store’s transactions in general and SNAP sales in particular can help you spot and address potential violations long before inspectors come to your store from the USDA. Install a point of sale system that employs the most up-to-date technology and can sort through all the transactions and the items purchased. The POS system should also be handy at flagging products that don’t qualify for EBT purchase as your cashiers ring them up. With this kind of a system in place, store proprietors can troubleshoot problems in real time and stay on top of their business compliance with SNAP regulations.
Your Reply to a SNAP Charge Letter
Unfortunately, a grocery store owner can take all these prescribed measures to protect their business and still find themselves slapped with SNAP violation charges after a USDA inspection. In these situations, the business usually has 10 (ten) days to respond to the charges, after which time the penalties outlined in the letter will be implemented. If the response to the accusations arrives at the Department in time, the USDA may dispatch a second letter saying that they want to maintain that the violations did truly occur. The second letter lays out their decision to disqualify or suspend the store from the program.
Best practice is for proprietors of grocery stores in this kind of a situation to consult with legal counsel right away after receiving an initial violation letter. An experienced SNAP lawyer can take over the administrative appeal process, put together any evidence (if it is useful), and take over responsibility for all ongoing communications with the USDA. If the USDA insists on pursuing the charges in the second letter, the attorney can file a judicial appeal on the client’s behalf to get a judge to try the case. Retaining an experienced lawyer places the business in a more favorable position to defeat the charges against it.
The federal government desires to diligently protect the integrity the SNAP program and make certain that it is providing vital assistance to the families in the country who need it most. In fact, trafficking crimes have dramatically declined over the last two decades because companies that violate its laws have been penalized with rather severe penalties. It is critical for every store owner to take the prescribed measures to shield their business against the possible legal implications of violating SNAP legislation. Additionally, if after such measures are implemented, the retailer finds themselves charged nonetheless as a result of a USDA investigation, they should get a good lawyer right away.