A nonprofit law firm that represents Philadelphia’s poorest residents says the city’s gas utility should do more to restore service to consumers who were shut off before the coronavirus pandemic.
Philadelphia Gas Works has already waived late fees and said it won’t turn off gas for consumers who can’t pay their bills during the crisis. Still, the utility has not relaxed its payment requirements for consumers whose services were disconnected earlier due to nonpayment. By contrast, PECO, the electric utility, and the Water Department have restored service to customers without requiring immediate repayment.
Community Legal Services, which represents low-income Philadelphians, said 11 clients want their services restored.
It’s unclear how many people are seeking gas. Under state law, utilities can’t shut off service for low-income residents during winter, so terminations have effectively been on hold since December. There were roughly 7,300 PGW households whose heat-related service was terminated in 2019 and remained without service at the start of the winter, according to a survey from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, the state regulatory agency.
PGW spokesperson Richard Barnes said the utility has not seen an increase in restoration requests since the winter moratorium went into effect.
In March, the PUC barred its regulated utilities from shutting off service for payment problems during Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency declaration. The commission also encouraged utilities to restore previously terminated service, if it could be done safety.
CLS lawyer Robert Ballenger said he has reached out to PGW to request service restoration on more favorable terms for clients, including seniors and vulnerable households. Many of them remain without service, he said.
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“This public health crisis necessitates that all Philadelphians who rely on PGW for home heating and gas appliances have service to stay warm and healthy,” he wrote in a letter to the utility last month. “PGW should immediately adopt a policy to restore service and provide flexible repayment terms to any customer who can safely receive gas service.”
In response, a PGW official noted that turning on gas requires entry into customers’ homes, unlike most water and electric turn-ons.
“In this time of governmental imposed social distancing, this is one of the factors relevant in PGW’s decision making,” Denise Adamucci, PGW’s vice president of regulatory compliance & customer programs, wrote in an email to CLS on April 17.
Barnes, the PGW spokesperson, said the utility can’t restore service if it’s unsafe to do so. Customers who can’t immediately pay in full may be eligible for an existing assistance program or payment plan, he added. And if a customer is using gas without paying for it, the cost is shared by other ratepayers.
“Our policy is based on PGW’s responsibilities to all of our customers and is based on guidance from our regulators,” Barnes said.
Service terminations are suspended between Dec. 1 and March 31 to keep low-income residents warm during the winter. That means restoration complaints generally involve situations where service was terminated at least six months ago, if not longer, according to the PUC.
One CLS client, Onether McFadden, 59, has been without gas for roughly two years after falling thousands of dollars behind on her bill. She said she uses space heaters to keep her West Oak Lane home warm. To bathe, she and her son heat water on a hot plate and pour it into buckets.
She said PGW asked for roughly $5,000 to restore service. She offered to pay more than $2,000 in early March, but the utility required full repayment. Her income was too high to qualify for PGW’s customer assistance program, she said.
“She’s offered to pay a sizable sum of money for PGW to work out payment terms and agree to provide service to her so that she can remain comfortably at home and safer than she has been during this time, and PGW has been unwilling to work with her,” Ballenger said.
Other utilities are being more lenient during the pandemic. The city Water Department is restoring service for all delinquent customers, waiving its previous requirement to pay the full outstanding balance and a $60 restoration fee. Since March 16, almost 15,000 customers previously shut off for delinquent accounts have had water service restored, spokesperson Laura Copeland said.
PECO is also reconnecting customers without requiring them to first pay their outstanding bills, though customers will still be responsible for unpaid or late balances. Hundreds of PECO customers have had service restored, said Funmi Williamson, PECO’s senior vice president and chief customer officer.
“Reconnection does not eliminate a past due balance," she said. "What it does do is reconnect the service and make sure that customer can be comfortable in their home. And so we are working with our customers to establish payment plans.”