To reduce the burden on people who represent consumers and community members, you may consider reimbursement for parking, gas and public transportation costs to and from meetings. Further, offering compensation shows the organization’s commitment to engaging nontraditional voices in helping make important decisions. However, there are guidelines that should be followed to ensure that participants who receive public benefits minimize any potential financial conflict: participation should not in any way add economic stress.
Both gift cards and stipends can impact the public assistance benefits that a participant may be receiving from state or local funds. As of January 2009, all federal assistance programs, even if they are distributed through a county or municipality, define income as anything – cash or in kind – that can be used to meet basic needs (e.g., food and shelter). Specifically, if the item can be converted to food or shelter, it counts as income.
It is highly recommended that the participants contact their benefits managers to access the impact of any type of stipend on their benefits.
- If the gift card can be used to purchase food or shelter items, or if the card can be re-sold, the value counts as income. Thus, gift cards are considered unearned income.
- For a gift card not to count as income, it needs to have a prohibition on the resale or transfer of the card, and the card must be limited to purchases that are neither food nor shelter. It is important to note that the restriction on resale must be a legal one; e.g., a legally enforceable prohibition on resale or transfer of the card imposed by the card issuer/merchant and printed on the card.
For these reasons, the use of gift cards and stipends can be problematic for participant’s receiving public benefits including Social Security Income, Social Security Disability Income, Medicaid, Food Stamps, etc. For other participants, who do not receive benefits based on their income level, this may not be an issue.
Since transportation reimbursement does not constitute as funds toward food or shelter, reimbursement for transportation will not impact assistance programs. Example reimbursements include:
- Bus tokens;
- Mileage reimbursements;
- Reimbursement for taxis (if meetings are held at a location not easily accessible by bus, light rail, or other public transit options);
- Reimbursement or validation for parking lots; or
- Reimbursement for parking meters.
Depending on your funding streams, reimbursements for transportation may require a legal receipt.
To reduce any burden on nontraditional participants, your organization may wish to identify a policy for providing or reimbursing for childcare. Depending on your funding streams, reimbursements for childcare may require a legal receipt. Some options include:
- Direct reimbursement for childcare expenses. Since this does not constitute any funds toward food or shelter, reimbursement for childcare will not impact assistance programs.
- Providing on-site childcare at meeting locations, applying principals of cultural competency to childcare as well.
- Creating/supporting an informal baby-sitting co-op with other parents.
- Organizations who offer reimbursement or other forms of compensation may be required to collect IRS form W-9 and issue IRS 1099 forms at the end of each year for the amount paid out to participants. We recommend checking with the IRS or your group’s accountant/bookkeeper to make sure you adhere to federal and state guidelines regarding the reporting of compensation.
- An alternate or additional way to compensate nontraditional participants may be to provide scholarships conferences or trainings. Opportunities to co-present at conferences or trainings with other partners are also of value.
- Professional advocates, those that are paid for their advocacy, may not accept payment other than their compensation for becoming a part of your board or committee. This is an individual discussion to have with the potential group participant.