Since early summertime, consumer advocates have been working to call attention to the potential for utility shutoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Well, this nightmare scenario is no longer just a threat — it’s here.
The state implemented a moratorium on shutoffs back in March when it became clear that the pandemic would upend the economy and personal finances for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Pennsylvanians, many of whom suddenly lost their jobs and had to learn to navigate low-income status. Compared with previous years, the utility companies say that unpaid bills have gone up 68%.
For months, advocates staved off a vote by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) to end the shutoff moratorium. But the commission finally voted in October to end the moratorium, putting more than 800,000 customers at risk of losing various services. Utilities began shutting off delinquent customers’ service on Nov. 9, just as Pennsylvania entered the latest wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two of the most important guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus are handwashing and social distancing — ideally while staying home. What happens when a mom loses her job and has to choose between buying food for her kids or paying the water bill? If she is in debt to the utility company, it can now turn off service to her home. The consequences of this would be disastrous because now the mom and her family cannot wash their hands to protect against infection.
Shutdowns of gas, electricity, and sewage services pose other imminent health risks. Inadequate heat and hygiene could render homes uninhabitable as temperatures drop. To control the spread of the virus, we need people to be safe in their homes. The only glimmer of light here is that the annual heating shutoff moratorium will kick into effect at the end of November.
While the PUC did include some accommodations for “protected customers” living close to the poverty line, this safety net is not wide enough, and many families will slip through the cracks or hit roadblocks from the extensive paperwork required to get assistance. Our state government is still sitting on $1 billion of the CARES Act money that we received to help Pennsylvanians weather the pandemic. In the last days of this current legislative session, the state House and Senate should prioritize voting on three bills, and propose to use this money to provide more long-term protection for consumers who could lose their utility services.
State Sen. Tom Killion and State Rep. Chris Quinn each have introduced complementary legislation that would allocate $150 million of the state’s remaining CARES Act funding to assist at-risk utility customers. State Sen. Steven Santarsiero has introduced his own bill with a similar end goal.
In an election year when Pennsylvanians feel politically divided, this is a solution that everyone can get behind for a problem that can impact anyone, of any demographic or any political party, in every part of the state. It’s time for our state leaders to come together and use the tools in their hands to make sure everyone has the heat, water, and sanitary services they need to be safe at home.
Emma Horst-Martz is an advocate for PennPIRG, the statewide consumer organization protecting Pennsylvanians’ health, safety, and well-being from special interests.
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.