An opinion has been requested by the Department of Human Resources as to whether an employee in the Recoupment and Recovery Unit of the Prince George's County DSS (PGDSS) may be employed as a cashier for a local food chain that accepts food stamp payments. We advise that an exception may be applied to permit this employment, subject to the understanding that the Employee be aware that if any food stamp issues arise in her private employment, her primary duty is to the agency and the affiliation may have to be terminated.
The Employee works in the Recoupment and Recovery Unit of the Income Maintenance Division in PGDSS. Her duties involve supervising a unit whose function is to recover funds transferred in error to clients under the food stamp, public assistance, medical assistance, and AFDC programs. Eligibility for funding under these programs is determined by caseworkers in another Income Maintenance Division Unit, which also conducts eligibility reconsiderations for each client every 6 months. The Recoupment and Recovery Unit's responsibility is to follow up on overpayment determinations made as a result of these reviews, and recover overpayments made to the client either by arranging for deductions from future payments or working out a repayment schedule with the client. The Employee and her Unit thus work directly with clients, and do not interact with merchants that accept food stamp payments.
The Employee has secondary employment as a cashier at a local food store. The food chain is one of the private entities that is part of the State's Electronic Benefits Transfer System (EBTS) through which Income Maintenance clients use a debit card to access benefits rather than receiving a check and spending cash. As a participant merchant in the food stamp program, this employer is an entity under the authority of the Employee's agency, and her employment with it barred by §3-103(a)(1)(i) of the Public Ethics Law (Article 40A, Annotated Code of Maryland, the Ethics Law), unless an exception is granted pursuant to Commission regulations at COMAR 19A.02.01. Issues could be presented under these regulations since the Employee in part works directly in the food stamp program, and her duties as a cashier would bring her into contact with at least some of the participants in the program.
The agency supports an exception in this situation based on the fact that the Employee is not involved in food stamp authorization and issuance, and also the fact that, since the automation of food stamp payments with the EBTS, the agency's contact with merchants participating in this program has diminished. We are further advised that the food chain's participation in the food stamp program is entirely automated. The cash register units do all calculations and determinations regarding which items are food stamp eligible and the cashiers handle no food stamps.
Under these circumstances, particularly in view of the functions of the Employee's unit and the automated nature of the store's operation, we advise that exception be allowed assuming that if any food stamp issues arise in her private employment, the Employee understands that her primary duty is to the agency and the affiliation may have to be terminated.
Mark C. Medairy, Jr., Chairman
Shirley P. Hill
Michael L. May
Mary M. Thompson
Date: November 17, 1993