When the coronavirus pandemic hit Pennsylvania, the state’s yearly winter moratorium on utility shut-offs from December and through March was in effect — preventing low-income households from losing gas and electricity in the cold winter months.
After calls from Philadelphia lawmakers, as well as The Inquirer’s editorial board, on March 13th the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) extended the moratorium indefinitely in recognition account for residents’ financial strain during the pandemic. Now pressure to resume shutdowns for nonpayment is mounting from the utility companies and associated trade groups while consumer advocates, such as Community Legal Services and the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project, urge the PUC to stay the moratorium.
The PUC, currently divided with two Democrats and two republicans, has been deadlocked in two previous votes on the matter.
In a letter published August 10, PUC Chairwoman Gladys Brown Dutrieuille wrote that Pennsylvania is not in the same place now that it was in mid-March and that extending the universal moratorium is fiscally unsustainable, and eventually will impact service quality for everyone. The letter calls for public comment ahead of the next PUC meeting on August 27th, when Dutrieuille hopes the matter will be settled.
Like eviction moratoriums, lifting the utility shut-off moratorium in the midst of a pandemic is unconscionable.
According to the most recent reports available from Pennsylvania utility companies, by the end of May, 790,000 residential accounts were in arrears — including 211,000 classified as low-income families. That’s an overall increase of nearly 10% from last year, despite the mild-winter that caused an 8% reduction in the number of accounts behind on gas payments.
With the cuts to unemployment benefits announced by the White House last week amid a 13% unemployment rate in Pennsylvania, and without any plan to help states fund the benefits in place, there is little reason to suspect that these hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania households are now suddenly capable of catching up on their bills since June.
Without access to utilities, it is impossible to comply with social distancing recommendations — or be productive from home. Without electricity, even children in households with internet connection won’t be able to virtually log in to school, and adults won’t be able to work. With recreational centers still closed, people losing access to utilities will have limited options for places to go to cool down on a hot day.
Further complicating the situation is Trump’s effort to gut the United States Post Office. Utility shut-off notices are sent by mail. With weeks-long delays in mail service, households might not be able to get notice on time — removing any chance that they could seek assistance and avoid the shut-off.
Having access to a stable, comfortable, and safe home is arguably more important now than ever. Instead of pressuring the PUC to lift the moratorium, the utilities and associated trade groups should pressure the state legislature and federal government to dramatically expand assistance to households so that debts are paid.