Even for people who haven’t contracted COVID-19 — or haven’t lost someone they loved — the pandemic has upended their lives. We all know someone who’s lost their job. Parents are working in overdrive to keep their children occupied at home, or to find care for the kids if they have to go to work. Every decision to go outside is fraught with trepidation.
One important policy that hasn’t been getting much attention, and is saving many Pennsylvanians from additional worry, is the moratorium on utility shutoffs. Put in place in the pandemic’s early months, this has been a crucial protection as many Pennsylvanians struggle to find jobs, put food on their table, and keep their families healthy. In fact, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission found that without the moratorium, more than 790,000 customers and 45,000 businesses across the state would qualify to have one or more of their utilities shut off, with the number rising every day. This is affecting people in every county, across rural and urban communities.
In March, as shutdowns were beginning, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission passed protections so that companies cannot shut off customers’ water, gas, heat, electricity, and telecommunications services even if they cannot pay their monthly bills due to the pandemic. If the moratorium were lifted today without critical steps to protect consumers, all of those households and businesses could lose their utility services.
Right now, the moratorium is continuing — even though the Energy Association of Pennsylvania, representing the utilities, has fought to end it. A shutoff would have devastating consequences. Imagine not having electricity to run a fan or air-conditioner during the sweltering heat wave battering Pennsylvania. Or not being able to run your refrigerator and keep the food from spoiling because the electricity was shut off. Or trying to work from home, but not being able to run your computer or charge your phone.
The list of problems could go on and on, but the takeaway is clear: losing power, water, and communication with the outside world would compound the existing challenges presented by the pandemic.
Fortunately, there is a short-term and a more long-term solution. First, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission should not lift the moratorium. It has already resisted two attempts to do so, with a tie vote saving consumers from shutoffs in July. Second, leaders in the Pennsylvania legislature can act during their next session to take just a small portion of the funds allocated to the state from the federal stimulus in the CARES Act and use it to cover these outstanding utility bills for customers who are at risk of shutoffs. This will take consumers out of arrears, and make sure that utility companies are paid for the services they’ve been providing.
This is exactly the type of solution the CARES Act funding was meant for. It is supposed to help states address temporary problems created by the COVID-19 pandemic. More Pennsylvanians than usual are unable to pay utility bills, so we should use the funding to protect them.
Our state leaders in Harrisburg must vote to allocate the $150 million to utilities so that nearly a million people can get through this difficult time without worrying that their services will be shut off. Everyone should be focused on keeping each other healthy, and to do that we need those basic services. Without them, we will see more suffering — and likely lose even more lives.
Emma Horst-Martz is a campaign associate for PennPIRG, the statewide consumer organization protecting Pennsylvanians’ health, safety, and well-being from special interests.