Utility Moratorium Updates: What You Need to Know
On March 31, 2021 the utility shutoff moratorium protecting vulnerable Pennsylvanians from service termination will expire. With moratoria in place since the beginning of the pandemic, customers had been protected from losing their utility services. With many if not more Pennsylvanians still suffering from the economic downturn, the prospect of an unrenewed moratorium is daunting. When the initial moratorium began in March 2020, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) stated “irreparable injury to the public is likely to occur with disruption of service, creating a clear and present danger to life.” This is still the case.
How can you take action to keep utilities on for vulnerable Pennsylvanians? You can sign-on to a letter from the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project and the Energy Unit at Community Legal Services calling on the PUC to extend the current protections for low-income customers and develop a plan to equitably forgive utility debt. Forward this letter throughout your networks and sign by the February 15 deadline.
It is also essential to equip those at risk of losing services with accurate information and next steps to take. On February 2, 2021 the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, of which LAMPa is a member, presented a webinar entitled “Utility Moratorium is ending soon – What you need to know!”. This webinar shared vital information for customers and advocates related to the current utility moratorium, set to expire on March 31, 2021 if no new moratorium is approved. The moratorium from the PUC protects electric, gas, and heat-related water customers with income at or below 250% of FPL. The number of people protected is staggering; 847,000 accounts were eligible for termination at the end of 2020, up 17% from 2019. Regulated utility debts reached nearly $812 million at the end of 2020, up 64% from 2019. The moratorium’s protections are essential for the growing number of customers in need.
With no guarantee of renewal, customers behind on their bills may see termination notices throughout February. These notices are typically good for up to sixty days. There is a possibility that the moratorium will be renewed, yet customers should be aware of steps they can take in the event they need assistance in protecting their services.
The Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania recommends customers at risk of losing service pursue these steps:
- Make a payment, even if it is not in full. This establishes a credible payment history.
- Contact a customer service agent and be forthright in providing income information.
- Apply for all available assistance programs.
- Determine whether special protections apply, such as being: a medically vulnerable customer, a victim of domestic violence, or a tenant.
- Repeat an affordable payment arrangement.
- File a utility dispute process or a PUC complaint.
- Seek bankruptcy as a last resort.
There are several utility assistance programs in the commonwealth that can help customers keep their services. Those lifted-up by Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania include: Customer Assistance Programs (CAP), Hardship Funds, Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), Low Income Usage Reduction Programs (LIURP), and Lifeline. These various programs provide options for those in need. Eligibility requirements vary, but generally are applicable to anyone at or below 150-200% of the Federal Poverty Line (FPL) with other factors considered as well.
The Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania also provided additional strategies for preventing a shut-off of services or for reconnecting services. These include:
- Applying for assistance programs.
- Investigating new payment arrangements.
- Pursuing a medical certificate.
- Utilize protections, such as those for victims of domestic violence.
Additionally, there are several agencies who customers facing service termination should reach out to. These include:
- The Utility Company
- PA PUC Bureau of Consumer Services – 800-692-7380, www.puc.state.pa.us/filing_resources/filing_complaints.aspx
- Local Legal Services Program – www.palegalaid.net/find-legal-help
- Pennsylvania Utility Law Project (PULP) – firstname.lastname@example.org, 844-645-2500 (emergency utility hotline for clients), 717-236-9486 (technical service for advocates/attorneys)
- Community Legal Services (CLS) – 215-981-3700 (Philadelphia residents only), 215-981-3756 (technical assistance for advocates/attorneys)
- Office for Consumer Advocate (OCA) – 800-684-6560, email@example.com
As the March 31st moratorium expiration date draws near, advocates should be aware of SB 109, which calls for the allocation of $569 million in rent and utilities assistance to all 67 Pennsylvania counties. This would be distributed proportionately based on 2019 population levels. As advocates seek to aid customers at risk of losing service upon the end of the moratorium, it is essential that additional aid and a renewed moratorium be put in place to support the most vulnerable.