Until further notice, Pennsylvania utilities are still prohibited from shutting off nonpaying customers, as they have been since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic emergency.
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission on Thursday took no action to allow utilities to resume service terminations of nonpaying customers. Utilities have been pressing regulators to lift the moratorium, which the PUC put into place in March under an emergency order.
The commission, which has deadlocked since July over whether to lift the moratorium on shutoffs, could address the issue at its next meeting, on Oct. 7. But with each passing month, the likelihood increases that the ban will remain in place until April because utilities are blocked from terminating most customers from Dec. 1 through March 31 during the winter heating season.
Utilities say the COVID-19 moratorium has made it difficult for them to collect payments or to get customers to sign up for assistance programs. They say customers were late on a total of $479 million in June, a figure that is mounting. Consumer advocates say that a public health emergency is no time to shut off a vital service, the loss of which could mean homelessness for some.
The state’s electric, gas and water utilities reported earlier this summer that about 845,000 customers were so far behind that their service could be ended, an increase of 9.6% from a year ago. Peco, the company that serves Philadelphia and its suburbs, said in May that about 146,000 of its electric customers were in arrears — 9% of its 1.6 million customers.
The commission did vote 3-1 Thursday to dismiss a joint petition from low-income advocates that would have required a thorough due-process review of the impact of lifting the moratorium. The petition was filed by the Coalition for Affordable Utility Service and Energy Efficiency in Pennsylvania, Tenant Union Representative Network, and Action Alliance of Senior Citizens of Greater Philadelphia.
The Energy Association of Pennsylvania, the utility trade association, had argued that a formal hearing process was not legally required, since the PUC had conducted no formal review of evidence when it approved the moratorium in March. In an August filing, the EAP had urged the commission to lift the ban on terminations, saying a “myriad" of consumer protections are in place.
The commission, in voting to dismiss the petition, said that its process of seeking comments on the moratorium last month from interested parties had served the same function as a formal review.
David W. Sweet, the commission’s vice chair, was the lone dissenting vote, and argued that the PUC should have a plan in place for when service terminations resume.
“The adverse economic consequences of this health crisis are far from over as employers across the state, large and small, have announced future layoffs and permanent job losses,” he said.
Sweet’s statement gave a hint of the philosophical divide that has deadlocked the PUC along party lines in recent months over the moratorium. Sweet and Gladys Brown Dutrieuille, the chair, are Democrats and have favored keeping the shutoff ban in place. Republicans John F. Coleman, Jr. and Ralph V. Yanora have appeared more sympathetic to utilities' calls to resume shutoffs.
Sweet said the moratorium should remain in place for those customers whose income is 300% or less of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, which are $26,200 for a family of four, so 300% would amount to $78,600. He also said the moratorium should remain in place for any residential and small-business customers “whose income was dramatically reduced by circumstances attributable to the pandemic.”
In New Jersey, where utilities adopted a voluntary coronavirus moratorium on shutoffs, the state announced in August that energy companies agreed to extend the moratorium until Oct. 15, allowing utilities more than a month to warn customers before terminating service.
About 24 states have enacted pandemic bans on utility shutoffs, according to the National Association of Regulatory Commissioners. New York has extended its moratorium until next year.
The Philadelphia Water Department, which is not regulated by the PUC, announced in August that it will extend its moratorium on shutoffs of nonpaying customers through Sept. 30. Philadelphia water customers were encouraged to apply for help immediately at phila.gov/waterbillhelp or by calling (215) 685-6300 to avoid a large bill when shutoffs resume.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.