As Maryland and other states have lifted moratoriums on utility shut-offs, advocates for the poor say millions of out-of-work Americans will need help getting out from under months of unpaid bills during a pandemic with no end in sight.
As of Dec. 31, Americans owed their gas and electric utilities an estimated $32 billion, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, which represents state directors of low-income energy aid programs. In the District, NEADA estimates that almost 63,000 households owed about $50 million, while more than 400,000 in Maryland owed $251 million. Similar numbers weren’t available for Virginia.
“We’ve never seen numbers like this before,” said Mark Wolfe, NEADA’s executive director. “The question is, how do we keep families connected to the grid and in their homes when they don’t have income coming in? . . . We’ve never had a situation where this many people haven’t paid a bill in more than nine months, and we still have a long time to go.”
In the Washington region, residents at most immediate risk of shut-offs are in Maryland, which began allowing them as of Nov. 15. While the state restricts electric and gas disconnections during extreme temperatures, it does not have a winter moratorium.
The District has a shut-off moratorium until at least mid-April — or 15 days after the city’s public health emergency, now in effect through March, is lifted.
Virginia utilities under state regulation — those that are privately or investor-owned, such as Washington Gas and Dominion Energy — cannot terminate service until at least two months after the state’s public health emergency declaration expires. An exception: Utilities may do so if the amount in arrears exceeds 1 to 2 percent of their annual operating revenue in a jurisdiction, depending on the utility type. Those not regulated by the state, such as Fairfax Water, can begin shut-offs after overdue payments exceed 1 percent of their annual operating revenue.
Pepco has disconnected about 320 homes in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties since early January, although 75 percent were reconnected after customers entered a payment plan or signed up for an assistance program, Pepco spokesman Ben Armstrong said.
As of Dec. 31, Armstrong said, Maryland households owed Pepco about $71 million, while District residents owed $53 million.
“Our goal is to keep every customer connected,” he said. “There are millions of dollars in energy assistance available out there. We really need our customers to contact us so we can make those connections to help them.”
Customers who are working or have a child attending school online from home will not lose power if they agree to enter a payment plan or pursue financial aid, he said.
WSSC Water, which serves Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, said it’s considering resuming shut-offs and reimposing late fees in the spring. As of Jan. 25, customers owed the utility $67 million — an increase of 77 percent from pre-pandemic numbers.
“We’re concerned people are getting too far behind, so they’ll never catch up or they won’t try to catch up,” said Joseph Beach, WSSC Water’s deputy general manager for administration. “We also have to look out for the long-term financial health of the utility.”
Washington Gas plans to begin sending shut-off notices to unresponsive Maryland customers after March 31, which could lead to disconnections starting around Memorial Day, the utility said. About 80,000 accounts in the Washington region were more than three months past due as of Dec. 31 — a 30 percent increase from a year earlier.
In the meantime, the utility is allowing customers to stretch out payments over a year and is connecting them with energy assistance programs.
“We get it,” said Michelle Musgrove, Washington Gas’s vice president of customer experience. “We know people are struggling now, and we want to get them the right help. The worst thing people can do is wait. They need to get ahead of it.”
Fairfax Water spokeswoman Susan Miller said the utility recently reached the revenue threshold for unpaid bills that would allow it to begin shutting off service for nonpayment. The utility is considering doing so, she said, but hasn’t made such plans. Unpaid bills amount to $1.84 million — more than a sevenfold increase since before the pandemic.
“It’s definitely something we’re looking into, because all utilities will have to face it eventually,” Miller said. “It’s mostly because this is just going to continue to grow, and we don’t know how long the pandemic will go on. It’s something we want to stay ahead of.”
Dominion Energy has not reached the 2 percent revenue threshold that would allow it to terminate Virginia customers’ service for nonpayment, said spokeswoman Peggy Fox. She said the utility would consider its options if the amount of unpaid bills reached that point.
First, she said, “We’d do everything we can to help people pay their bills off.”
The company has forgiven more than $127 million in customer debt and has increased its assistance funding as it asks customers to line up a payment plan or apply for other help, Fox said.
Meanwhile, some congressional Democrats and a coalition of more than 600 racial justice, labor, environmental and religious groups have urged President Biden to declare a national ban on utility cutoffs. The administration recently extended a federal moratorium on evictions through March and proposed $25 billion in rental assistance and $5 billion for home energy and water costs as part of its $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package.
The pandemic relief bill that passed in December provided $25 billion in rental and utility assistance.
Supporters of a national utility moratorium cite a recent analysis by Duke University researchers that found banning disconnections nationwide from March through November last year would have reduced coronavirus infections by 8.7 percent and deaths by 14.8 percent. If power and water stay on, the researchers said, people can practice safe hygiene and socially distance better in their own homes, rather than moving in with others.
Of the shut-off moratoriums mandated in 33 states and the District last spring, twelve remain in effect, according to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. Some additional states are under regular winter restrictions.
Elsa Cruz, 42, who lives in Prince George’s, said her utility bills mounted quickly after she lost work cleaning offices that shuttered last spring. While work eventually picked up, she said, she’s recently been home sick since she, her husband and their son got covid-19.
Their family owes about $1,050 to Pepco, WSSC Water and Washington Gas, said her son, Jason Cruz, 18.
With her son translating, Elsa Cruz said she was planning to set up payment plans. But she said she’s worried about how she and her husband, who works in construction, will pay off their utility bills in addition to buying groceries and keeping the Wi-Fi on for their two sons to continue virtual learning.
“It’s stressful because we have very little left after that,” she said. “They’re the basics of living . . . We’re still in a time of crisis until we receive the vaccine.”
More than 10 months into the pandemic, Washington-area utilities say they are trying to balance compassion toward hard-hit customers and their own income needs to provide safe, reliable service.
Michael T. Richard, a Maryland public service commissioner, said he worried that lifting the state moratorium would be premature amid the economic crisis. He said he’s concerned that many customers, particularly those facing long-term unemployment for the first time, might not understand their options for paying off bills gradually or obtaining financial aid.
“I think we need to be very, very cautious at this stage and make sure people don’t lose their essential utility services,” Richard said.
Jason M. Stanek, chairman of the Maryland Public Service Commission, said the moratorium needed to expire because customer debt was growing out of control. By the end of last year, the state’s five largest energy utilities saw unpaid residential bills balloon to more than $200 million — up from $95 million before the pandemic — even as “millions of dollars” in government assistance went untapped, he said.
“People knew their service couldn’t be terminated,” Stanek said. “Some customers viewed that as a sort of bill-free holiday.”
The commission required that customers be given more time to pay off their bills and more notice before losing service so they could seek help, he said. However, allowing utilities to send disconnection notices stabilized the number of accounts in arrears.
“It sent a signal to customers that now was the time to get serious,” Stanek said.
As of December, District residents owed $8.6 million in water and sewer bills — almost double the amount in arrears in March, D.C. Water officials said.
David L. Gadis, D.C. Water’s general manager, said he hasn’t heard of any plans to lift the city’s moratorium. Even so, he said, D.C. Water wants customers to take advantage of up to $4,000 in debt relief programs and new discounts for some tenants who pay utilities as part of their rent.
“We just want to make sure that whenever the moratorium might be lifted, people don’t have this huge bill that they have to pay,” Gadis said. “There’s money there. We’re asking people to apply for it.”
Behind on your bills? Utilities say they can establish flexible payment plans and connect customers to government and nonprofit aid. Here’s where to get help:
●Pepco: 202-833-7500 or pepco.com/help
●Washington Gas: 844-WASH-GAS or washingtongascares.com
●Dominion Energy: 1-866-366-4357 or DominionEnergy.com
●WSSC Water: 301-206-4001 or wsscwater.com/assistance
●D.C. Water: 202-354-3750, firstname.lastname@example.org, or dcwater.com/cap
●Fairfax Water: 703-698-5800, email@example.com, or fairfaxwater.org/news/payment-assistance-options