You Can Get Unemployment Payments On A Debit Card That No One Accepts

Many states no longer issue unemployment checks. You can receive your payments through direct deposit, or using a Visa or Mastercard-branded debit card. That’s the state of affairs in Pennsylvania, where reader Sam lives. He tells Consumerist that this method would be less of a racket for banks and more useful for people on unemployment if there were any places other than fee-happy ATMs that actually accepted the darn things.

Sam writes:

I thought you guys would like to know about the new way a handful of states issue payments these days. First off, some background. My company did some reorganization and I found myself temporarily out the door. I applied for Unemployment benefits since at the time I wasn’t sure I would be hired back. Upon signing up, the state website (I’m in PA) mentions they no longer issue checks – you can either get direct deposit or use the state issued Mastercard branded debit card they send out. The catch is that direct deposit takes 4 weeks to take effect (why?) so no matter what you’re going to have to use the debit card for a few weeks.

Here’s where it gets fun. Despite being an honest-to-goodness Mastercard branded card, I haven’t found one place that will accept it. Even if I choose the option to use it as a credit card rather than debit, no dice. I guess what the unemployed need is the extra motivation of the embarrassment of a declined card to go out and get a job, eh? Only thing is that it’s not just unemployment. Anyone getting welfare or even mandated child support payments get this card issued. How can a business that accepts Mastercard/Visa/etc single out a certain kind of card to refuse? Besides, it’s just like any other debit card. If there’s no money it won’t go through. There’s no need for a business to worry that a card provided by the state means the person using it is a deadbeat with no money. I’m not sure what options there are either. I was told by the company that runs the cards ( that some places just refuse to accept it and that’s that. Doesn’t that violate their agreements with the credit card companies? Does Mastercard know (or care) that businesses do this? I could try to ask the management of the businesses themselves, but most likely it’s a corporate policy that no one in the stores will be able to explain. Not to mention you look like an a-hole who just can’t accept that their card got declined.

This may be something that the Consumerist would want to look into, especially since the one place that will accept the card with no question is at an ATM with their tasty fees that will nickel and dime you to death.

Likely bet: the places that don’t accept the unemployment cards are the same ones that won’t accept prepaid debit cards. If you receive unemployment, and were forced to use the debit card for any period of time, have you run into this problem in your state?


Edit Your Comment

  1. BuyerOfGoods3 says:

    OMG – In Texas, if you use your “TWC Debit Card” (texas workforce commission) more than ONCE, it will start charging you a $25.00 “service fee” from CHASE Bank!

    This is why they NOW allow DIRECT DEPOSIT.

    DO NOT use your card for ANYTHING other than REMOVING THE MONEY from your account ONCE.

    They will take all of your money. Chase ripped me off!!

    • colinjay says:

      That’s not correct. I’ve used mine more than once at a non Chase ATM and the fee was only $1.50 per transaction. There was never any charge to use it at a retail location. Unless things were different over a year ago, I think you are mistaken.

      • BuyerOfGoods3 says:

        I would not be surprised if things “were different a year ago.” I know that CHASE charged my unemployment card a $25.00 fee each time it was used as a debit card, beyond my first ‘free’ transaction.

        This happened at the Chase bank in Buda, TX. They also tricked me into opening an account without explaining all of the details of it — and when I came back in the next day (after reading through the whole paper in an envelope he gave me; did not have me SIGN anything), they told me I “Could close the account” – but the “$50.00 opening fee is being retained by Chase”

        So, not only did they gouge my unemployment funds for three seperate $25.00 fees (gas station, used as a Debit card. And two others I don’t recall right now) — and then, kept the money I used to “open the checking account”—as opposed to using the Unemployment account.

        Get it now?

        Chase Sucks.

    • ovalseven says:

      Select ‘credit’ instead of ‘debit’, and use only Chase ATMs, then you won’t have to pay all of those fees.

      • Difdi says:

        No, you’ll just pay the astronomical cash advance fee instead.

        • ovalseven says:

          I had a Chase debit card for unemployment benefits for nearly a year. I always used it as a credit card and never paid a penny for it.

          I made only one ATM withdrawal every two weeks at a Chase ATM. Never a fee for that either.

          You’ll only have problems with fees if you use it as a debit card, and/or make frequent ATM withdrawals.

    • Lolotehe says:

      Don’t forget that if the card is inactive for 12 months, Chase starts to put fees against it.

      AND TWC will not automatically send you a new card if they have it on record that you had one before. You have to request one.

  2. AgostoBehemoth says:

    I collected child support payments for a while, here in PA – and had to use the Mastercard branded eppicard. I only ever used it at ATM’s – but the problem was that ATM’s allow you to withdraw money in round amounts…. usually multiples of $20 – and also charges fees. I am pretty sure PA still has some ‘under-$20’ amount of mine – that I just couldn’t figure out how to get.

    • apple420 says:

      The FAQ on says “When using your card at the bank teller window, present your card and tell the cashier the amount of cash you wish to receive. You may be asked to sign a receipt. “
      This method sounds like it could be used to get the under $20 amount…Unless the fee for doing that is huge.

    • blogger X says:

      If you live around Philly, to go Wawa. The PNC ATM machines in there dispenses ten dollar bills. Best of all, those machines do not charge you!

  3. fosterb says:

    I saw an ad for visa which touted the savings governments have by using pre-paid cards — It claimed it cost the state 1 cent to put money on these cards… But completely ignored the fees charged to the individuals. Moreover these cards are not the same as cash, like the OP noted above — it reminded me of how shit this world really is, and how easy it is to spin a savings of 50-something cents as the greatest thing ever. Thanks Banking Industry! Now give me a happy pill.

  4. grucifer says:

    I’m in PA, was unemployed for a year and a half. Never once was money put on my mastercard. Direct deposit worked faster than advertised.

    • backinpgh says:

      Yeah, I’m willing to bet the “four weeks” they warn you of is more of a cover-our-ass deadline, and it likely doesn’t take as long as they say.

      • djshinyo says:

        I had to file in Mass recently, and was told my first check would be received in three weeks. I had everything in about 10 days. Ass-covering sounds about right…..

  5. Tim says:

    First off, I hope the OP is in the process of setting up direct deposit and that the card is only being used as his/her temporary solution.

    Second, I’m pretty sure it violates a MasterCard agreement of some sort. You might want to check with MasterCard as to whether they have a policy such as “merchants that accept MasterCard must not discriminate as to the bank or source of the card,” etc.

    More importantly, I don’t see how this is anything but classism. Welfare/child support cards still have the same money behind them that other debit cards have. The merchant still gets the money.

  6. backinpgh says:

    I live in PA and had food stamps for a while. They gave me an EBT access cards. The access cards also store cash benefits if you get them; I didn’t. So the welfare thing doesn’t really apply to this situation far as I know.

    Seems like your best bet is just to withdraw all the cash at once at an ATM and deposit it elsewhere, or just use cash.

    • jessjj347 says:

      Yeah, I was going to say that food stamps is an EBT card, not a Mastercard. So, those cards aren’t accepted everywhere, but the store usually will plainly say if it is accepted.

  7. humphrmi says:

    State of Illinois is the same, debit card or direct deposit. But they do direct deposit within days, usually the same day, so it’s the clear choice for folks who have bank accounts.

  8. Verucalise (Est.February2008) says:

    I have the NYS eppicard that my child support is deposited on- I’ve never had the pleasure of any business refusing to accept it, but I agree with the OP on the drastic fees. There are, if I remember correctly, 3-4 banks (in ALL of NY) that let you use their ATM for free- but eppicard still gets their $1 cut regardless. Pretty much anytime you type in your PIN, you are charged. I would go the direct deposit route, but NYS child support keeps rejecting my direct deposit form, citing “Wrong County Code.” This has been going on for a YEAR. I pretty much gave up after the 5th rejection.

    To the OP – If you use it at a major supermarket, you should be able to get cash back. I do that frequently.

  9. uberbitter says:

    Call your congressman.

  10. Evil_Otto would rather pay taxes than make someone else rich says:

    And any second now someone will say that if people can’t (or don’t want to) use these cards, they should get up off their lazy asses and get a job.

    Yup, it’s that simple.

    • kethryvis says:

      Sure, because in this market the jobs are plentiful and easy to get.

      A local library here put out a job for a **half time** page/book shelver.

      They got 700 applications. For a part time job that pays $10 an hour. They usually get way under 70 apps for such a job.

  11. ShruggingGalt says:

    First I thought this didn’t make sense.

    Then I realized that perhaps the Eppicard is setup with Level 2 capabilities. Level 2 cards WILL restrict usage based on merchant classification.

    Ever get a Visa/Mastercard debit card with an HSA? You won’t be able to use it at Walmart or Target pharmacy. Why? Because you can buy other things at the same time, and since Visa/Mastercard doesn’t get a summary of the items bought, it restricts it at the MCC level.

    Having an MCC restriction makes sense for… food stamps (like prohibit liquor store use), but for unemployment….why do this?

    • Tim says:

      HSA cards (and FSA ones too) don’t work like that nowadays. Stores install systems in their registers that can differentiate between qualified items and non-qualified ones, then allow the HSA/FSA card to only pay for the qualified ones.

    • nybiker says:

      Thank you for the heads-up about the MCC. Good thing that the HSA card I have lets me get my scripts at Rite-Aid. I guess it could be up to the clerk to keep me from using it at the same time to buy candy or cookies, but I haven’t tried to do that (for some reason I like to ensure that my receipts are accurate).

      • catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

        i know both walgreens and CVS will let me run the FSA mastercard i have and apply it to the appropriate FSA eligible items and leave me a balance to pay with another method – but only at the pharmacy register. if i go to the front register i have to make two separate transactions.

    • majic2516 says:

      I use my HSA Visa check/debit card all the time at Target’s Pharmacy – no issues

    • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

      I’ve never had any problems using my HSA card at either Wal Mart or Target.

    • brinks says:

      I don’t know what type it was, but a friend of mine was able to use his unemployment debit card here in a bar in Ohio. Guess this is the best place to be unemployed.

  12. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    By law, you can cash out any paycheck placed on a pay card (including unemployment checks) at least once penalty free. This means, by law, you cannot incur transaction fees the first time you cash out your card. This, however, does not guarantee no fees for future transaction. States law may allow for more protections.

    Cash out your card every time you get it, and put it in your own bank account.

  13. greg7079 says:

    I would be willing to bet that in each of these states there are one or more bureaucrats that have and are getting kickbacks from eppicard for instituting these policies. And no I am not a conspiracy theorist, just a realist.

  14. Drew says:

    When I’ve gotten prepaid Visa debit cards in the past (usually as part of rebates and such), I’ve taken them to a teller at the bank and cashed them out. From what I understand, if the bank has the Visa logo, they must, without fee, cash out the card. Dunno about how Mastercard branded ones work.

    Something else you can probably do is when you get groceries, ask for cash back.

  15. cheezfri says:

    Per section 5.8.1 of

    “A Merchant must honor all valid cards without discrimination when properly presented for payment. A Merchant must maintain a policy that does not discriminate among customers seeking to make purchases with a Card.”

    I’m 99% certain Visa has the same requirement, but you can look that up here if you’d like:

  16. Rachacha says:

    Ir the restriction perhaps a restriction that the card issuer placed on the card? I have a Visa card issued by my employer for use when I travel, and there are restrictions on where I can use it, so they blocked certain types of merchants based on the type of account they identified themselves as. For example, I went to lunch with a client and they recommended a restaurant at the local country club. I went to pay for the meal, and my card was declined, when I called the CC company, they informed me that the merchant account was established as a private club, not a restaurant, so it was blocked. Similar thing at an airport, I went to one of the restaurants, and my card was declined because their merchant account said they were a gift and novelty shop rather than a restaurant.

    The OP did not say where he was shopping, but if the state said that they only wanted the benefits to be used for food and electric utilities, they could block all restaurants, bars, liquor stores, clothing shops and specialty stores. It is a possibility.

  17. colinjay says:

    Here’s my tip:
    If the programs in other states are like Texas, go to the card’s issuing bank (in Texas it is Chase) go inside and get the full amount in cash from the teller. That way you get the full amount, in hand with no fee (one free teller visit per deposit).

    What a lot of people are missing is that while I HATED beyond HATED not being able to get direct deposit and being forced to use a debit card, there are ways to completely eliminate fees.

    They aren’t entirely evil either. Back in the good old days people got paper checks for unemployment. Check cashing places charge anywhere from 1-5% which is $3-$15 on a $300 check. Poor people who didn’t have or were unable to open a checking account were screwed. These debit cards, while abhorrent to me, can save some people from fees if used wisely.

  18. PSUSkier says:

    Wait, you live in PA and don’t want to pay crazy ATM fees? That’s what Sheetz is for (fee free ATMs). Or, y’know, I assume you have a bank account so direct deposit.

    • jessjj347 says:

      Sheetz or Wawa depending on where in PA the OP is.

      • MauriceCallidice says:

        Indeed. There’s clearly some sort of shady covenant-not-to-compete going on between those two, particularly given their frequent aping of each other’s promotions and new products and almost complete non-overlap of territories.

  19. demona667 says:

    I live in New York and back when I was on unemployment I used the debit card. Every transaction I used the card for went though without any problems save one.

    Gas. It was always declined when buying gas no matter what station I tried.

    I learned something interesting when I called up the Chase customer service number. You cannot use the New York State Department of Labor Direct Payment Card to purchase the following items –
    1. Gas
    2. Cell phone bill
    3. Cruise tickets

    No really. Cruise tickets. That’s what she said, I kid you not.

    • Mark says:

      I am in NC and am on Eppicard.

      Wondered why I could never get my card to work in a gas station.

      Guess I don’t need ‘luxury’ items like gas. …and I sure am not planning on any cruises.

    • Verucalise (Est.February2008) says:

      Were you trying to use the card in the pump? Gas pumps put a pre-authorization of $75 on your card (if not more!) just to secure that the funds are indeed in your account, even if you only pump $30. It would clear within about 2-3 days, releasing the excess hold. They most likely wouldn’t let you use your card as such because of this.

      My sister has used her NYS card at the gas station successfully, she just pumps her gas and then goes in to pay. (Or prepays if the gas station is prepay only). I’m pretty sure she has paid her bills (including cell phone) successfully as well.

  20. Robin says:

    Have you tried it at a Sheetz or Wawa ATM? They advertise no-fee transactions like crazy.

  21. minorthr says:

    My wife was unemployed in PA and for the first month before direct deposit kicked in the money went to the mastercard. We had no problem using it anywhere.

  22. balthisar says:

    As mentioned above, go to a bank that is a member of Mastercard. It can be any Mastercard-affiliated bank. Ask for a cash advance up to the amount that’s on the card. They’re not allowed to charge you a teller fee, and you don’t have to be an account holder. It’s part of being a Mastercard-affiliated bank. Normally there’s a cash advance fee charged to you by the credit card. But apparently you get one free per period, so that won’t apply.

  23. pantheonoutcast says:

    We can sit here all day and discuss Merchant Agreements, but we all know that’s futile. Here’s a workaround that might be of some use:

    My sister was unemployed earlier this year and received her benefits in the same way. And, just like the OP, she had difficulty using the cards in a lot of places. We hit upon a simple solution that worked perfectly for her, so I don’t see why it shouldn’t work for the OP: Go to the bank where you maintain a checking account. Have the bank take all the funds off the benefit card and transfer them to your checking account. Use your regular debit card from now on. There were no problems making the transfer, and it didn’t cost her a cent in fees.

    Some variables: My sister lives in NY and her bank is Chase. YMMV.

  24. DanRydell says:

    Get a bank account (they’re free at most banks!), deposit the money, problem solved.

    Is it possible that stores weren’t accepting it because he hadn’t set the PIN yet?

  25. brinks says:

    A friend of mine used his Ohio-issued card at bars and had no problems.

    Is the OP anywhere near the OH/PA border? No idea if it’s the card itself or the merchants, but the rules seem to be quite a bit looser over here.

  26. psychocellochica says:

    Not sure if the OP is in the Philly area, but every Wawa has a surcharge free ATM.

    Also, Welfare payments like TANF, General Assistance, and Food Stamps (as well as child support for anyone who also receives TANF-Cash) are paid to an EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) card, not an Eppi Card. There are never transaction fees for usage from welfare, but if a recipient chooses to use an ATM with fees, they can be charged withdrawal fees on their cash.

    EBT cards also aren’t credit card branded cards… they are restricted because stores must meet certain standards to accept Food Stamps (I believe there is an older story on Consumerist about Costco and Food Stamps that goes into it more). It’s mainly a fraud prevention thing I think.

    I actually am a welfare caseworker in PA, and like i’m always telling my clients – “Someone took advantage of the system before – that’s why you’re getting screwed now.”

  27. psm321 says:

    You can usually go to the bank and withdraw the entire balance once per “pay period” on these cards without a fee.

  28. Mollyg says:

    I ran into the same problem and came up with an easy solution. I called the company that issued the card and told them that I do not accept their terms and conditions. That forced them to send me a check for the full amount.

  29. jeff_the_snake says:

    Either the card was activated improperly or the magnetic strip is bad. I have the same one and the only place i’ve been unable to use it is Playstation Network.

  30. zyphbear says:

    Here’s a “well, actually…” for you.

    These cards are similar to the HSA (Health Savings Account) debit cards in the fact that they can limit where and what is bought. If you check with the card issuer (bank), you will find you can’t use it to pay for any type of liquor, cigarettes/tobacco, gambling/lottery or any other kind of adult/unneeded items/merchants/services. But its all about what the company sells and what the category is set as the merchant. (Grocery store, department store, etc). They may limit the category of “convenience stores” to block the selling of cigarettes/tobacco, which unfortunately could effect gas purchases.

    It may also depend on the POS/register system. After all, many register systems are intelligent enough to be able to set what items are HSA eligible items and ring them up on their own, leaving you to pay the rest. I can tell you firsthand when I went to CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, and even Target I didn’t have to checkout twice.
    When I had an item(s) that was HSA eligible, it was all rung up together, I swiped my HSA Visa branded card, the POS system presented me with the HSA Total on the terminal, I accepted the total, then was prompted to pay for the difference automatically. Cashier normally didn’t even have to get involved.

    My thought, just call the customer service line and ask specifically what companies/merchant categories are not eligible. If you were making a regular purchase of milk/bread from your local grocery store and it got declined when you tried swiping the card as credit. Let the card issuer know, there might just be a simple explanation as to what happened. They would be able to tell you if it even hit their system, just likes banks can. If it didn’t, might be a merchant issue. I know plenty of people that used the Welfare/Unemployment cards without one hiccup when they bought normal items. Anything else you need, just get the difference from a bank window/ATM.

  31. Winteridge2 says:

    Not to worry. Benefits will be running out soon for everyone. Every time congress meets, they ask for a show of hands of members who are unemployed. If there are none, unemployment is not an urgent problem. Maybe after november elections, things will change.

  32. internetsguy says:

    I received unemployment benefits last year in PA and never once had to use their debit card. My first benefit payment came as a direct deposit. Maybe call someone and see if you can speed up the process?

  33. JamesBenjamin says:

    Or you could, *gasp* sign up for direct deposit and wait four weeks for a lump sum payment!

  34. tape says:

    what kind of corrupt, graft-laden bullshit went down for government benefits to be issued on debit cards, which put money in the pocket of Visa or Mastercard every time they are used?

    America, you are making it really hard to like you.

  35. Brunette Bookworm says:

    Did the OP check the Pennsylvania unemployment website for info on this? LIke others have said, it’s best to cash the card out and put it in your bank account but 30 seconds of googling brought me to this site…

    On there is a link that says, “Avoid ATM Surcharge Fees” and one that says, “Shop With It.” I suggest reading those and if the places that are recommended still try to charge a fee or don’t accept the card contacting the unemployment office.

  36. aliasmisskat says:

    In Indiana we use the same card system, Eppicard, for unemployment. For the most part, I’ve had no issues with it, except pay at the pump and purchasing stuff online (and only then occasionally). Everywhere else has accepted it as a debit or credit card.

    Of course, I’m lucky to live in a town with plenty of PNC branches (formerly Natl. City). There are towns and cities (Lafayette, for instance) in Indiana with no branches, so you cannot withdraw your money from an ATM with no fees, and that seemed a bit unfair.

    If it’s the same system among all the states Eppicard services, why would it be any different in Indiana than in PA?

  37. davebg5 says:

    When I was on unemployment my bartender ALWAYS accepted my state issued debit card.

  38. lyllydd says:

    I was unemployed beginning in November of last year, and I also got my payments in the form of a debit card. I live in IL.
    Never had one single problem. Grocery stores, gas stations, even paid for my physical therapy with it. (Yep. I was laid off while I was recovering from a severe injury.)
    Never tried using it for anything other than real necessities, though. I have no idea if a bookstore or some of the clothing stores downtown would have accepted it.
    I guess it must be an east coast problem, since people are posting about it from PA and NY.