Saturday July 7, 2012

CONCORD, N.H. -- Outrage over the firing of a convenience store clerk who refused to sell cigarettes to a welfare recipient prompted House Speaker William O’Brien to call for tighter restrictions on New Hampshire welfare benefits Friday, though he stopped short of proposing specific legislation.

O’Brien met with reporters in his Statehouse office along with Jackie Whiton, who was fired in May from a Peterborough store after turning away a customer who tried to buy cigarettes using a welfare benefits card. Since going public with her story, Whiton has been featured in media around the country, sparking considerable ire among those who view such purchases as an affront to taxpayers.

"We’re not going to let her courage go unanswered," said O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon. "We have a tradition in New Hampshire of taking care of the least able among us, and yet there is an expectation that those who we assist will receive and use the assistance honorably."

Like other states, New Hampshire issues welfare recipients Electronic Benefits Transfer cards for food benefits, which come with restrictions, and separate cash benefits that can be spent on anything. Those cash benefits can be accessed either by using the EBT cards to pay for merchandise, or by withdrawing money from an ATM. A new federal law prohibits people from using the cards in liquor stores, casinos and adult-oriented entertainment businesses, and at least 10 states have enacted their own restrictions to prohibit using the cards to pay for everything from beer to guns.

The earliest lawmakers could propose changing New Hampshire’s system would be January, when the Legislature is in session again, and there are no specific proposals yet in the works. But O’Brien suggested the state go further than others in doing away with the cash aspect of the benefits altogether in an effort to stop someone from withdrawing cash from an ATM and then spending it on tobacco or other items.

"It is not apparent to us... as to why there should be any cash on those cards, why there shouldn’t be just dedicated funds," he said. "I think we can lead the way, if necessary, for the country in ensuring that funds given to folks for public assistance are used to meet the needs of their lives and not the pleasures of their lives."

He also suggested he was open to the idea of further restricting which foods people could buy with their food aid, citing the example of one grocery store that reminds customers that they can purchase lobster with their benefits. "We know there’s an attitude out there ... that is really breaking faith with the taxpayers of New Hampshire," he said.

Whiton, meanwhile, said she hopes her experience leads to change. The 65-year-old Antrim woman said she could not tolerate seeing welfare recipients buy cigarettes with their benefits while elderly customers struggle to heat their homes or pay for medication.

"I could not sit back and watch it happen," she said.

Whiton had worked at the Big Apple food store for six years. She has said that when she was told that she had to sell the cigarettes, she tried to give her two weeks’ notice and quit but was fired the next day.

Chick Wilkins, general manager of the store’s parent company, C.N. Brown Company, which employs more than 800 workers, said Whiton was given the opportunity to keep her job as long as she complied with store policy and federal and state regulations.

"Our employees cannot impose their own personal biases over these products and make decisions about what will and will not be sold to individual customers," he said. Workers "may have individual opinions about many of the products sold in our stores -- tobacco, wine, beer, condoms, high-calorie products -- but these products must all be made equally available to all eligible purchasers."