If you’re behind on your utility bills, you could soon face a shutoff. Starting Nov. 9, Pennsylvania utilities are allowed to cut off nonpaying customers, ending a moratorium from the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
But don’t panic. You may be protected.
Service terminations, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission voted last month, can resume for PUC-regulated utilities PECO and PGW, says Joline Price, a staff attorney with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia’s energy unit. (The Philadelphia Water Department, which is not regulated by the PUC, is not allowed to shut off customers until April 1, 2021.)
But if you’re low-income or financially struggling, you may be a “protected customer,” and be able to avoid a shutoff. It’s not automatic, however. You’ll need to be proactive and show that you should be protected, says Price.
“We are advising clients to proactively call their utility, tell them that they believe that they should be protected from shutoff, and to do that affirmatively — even if they don’t get a shutoff notice,” she says.
So what do you need to do to avoid a shutoff? Here is what you need to know:
Who qualifies to be a protected customer?
To be eligible for protection, you must be a residential customer, and make less than three times the federal poverty income guidelines. For example, a family of four can earn up to $78,600 per year and still qualify.
You also have to apply for any assistance programs that you are eligible for, as well as ask for a payment arrangement for utility bills you still owe, Price says.
If you’re eligible, you will be protected from any shutoffs until March 31, 2021 (or until the order is rescinded), and utility companies can’t charge you late fees, reconnection charges, and deposit fees.
If you’re not sure you are protected, you have some time to figure it out. The PUC’s order requires utilities to notify at-risk customers 10 days before sending a 10-day termination notice, giving you a total of 20 days to get help.
(The initial notice, Price says, should inform you that you are at risk of termination, give a time frame for the proposed shutoff, and detail what steps you can take to show you are protected.)
How can I become a protected customer?
To begin, call your utility company and tell it that you are a protected customer — and have proof that your income makes you eligible. Tell it that you plan to apply for assistance programs and payment arrangements.
Next, apply for assistance programs from the utility that you qualify for, such as PECO’s Customer Assistance Program (CAP) and PGW’s Customer Responsibility Program (CRP). Those programs, Price says, help lower your bill and also forgive some of the money you owe. To qualify, your income typically has to be no higher than 150% of the federal poverty line.
In addition, you should apply for grants such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and the Utility Emergency Services Fund (UESF). LIHEAP cash grants can offer between $200 and $1,000 for heating bills, while UESF can give up to $1,500 for PECO and PGW bills, and up to $3,000 for your water bill. Generally, Price notes, you need to apply for LIHEAP before applying for UESF.
Then, Price says, you should ask your utility for a payment arrangement. But if you think you can’t afford the payment plan, or the amount you owe is incorrect, you should not agree to the arrangement. Instead, you may be able to negotiate for better terms, though the utility will ultimately have the final say.
What if you’re not a protected customer?
If the utility says you’re not protected, Price recommends calling the PUC’s Bureau of Consumer Services to file an informal dispute. That should lead to an investigation that may change the utility’s decision.
But if you don’t qualify for protection, you still have some options:
You can call the utility and ask about payment arrangement options to help keep bills from piling up.
If you’ve received a shutoff notice, you can ask for a “medical certificate," if you or someone you live with has a medical condition that could get worse by a shutoff. For example: conditions like diabetes, which requires refrigerated insulin, or asthma, which requires a nebulizer.
Medical certificates are available to anyone regardless of income level, Price says, and can be filled out by a doctor, nurse practitioner, or physician’s assistant. They put a 30-day hold on a shutoff.
You can renew the medical certificate up to four times. But, Price says, this should be “a last resort,” and you should try to get recognized as a protected customer first.
What if my landlord’s name is on the bill?
If you’re a tenant whose landlord’s name is on the utility bill, you don’t have the same protections under the PUC order. So, if your landlord is behind on a PECO or PGW bill for your rental, the process for keeping your utilities on won’t be exactly the same — but you do have some protections.
State law requires that you get 30 days' notice that your landlord is behind on the bill, and gives you the option of paying the last 30 days' bill to maintain service. You can also take over paying the bill, and you do not need to pay your landlord’s debt to keep service going.
The downside: Because you are still not a customer, you aren’t eligible for utility-run assistance programs like CAP and CRP. If you pay your landlord for heat as a part of rent or in addition to your rent, you can still apply for a LIHEAP grant.
What about the winter shutoff moratorium?
Pennsylvania also has a winter moratorium on shutoffs for PUC-regulated utilities between Dec. 1 and March 31 for households at or below 250% of the federal poverty line. But that doesn’t mean your service is guaranteed to be turned back on if it is shut off this month.
November, Price adds, is typically a “big month” for shutoffs because of the Dec. 1 deadline. But this year, organizations like CLS are worried that that could be worse. So, Price recommends being proactive and reaching out to your utility.
Where to go if you need help
If all this sounds complicated, or if you need help getting assistance, you’re not alone. CLS, Price says, will guide you through your options over the phone, at 215-981-3700.
Additionally, Philadelphia has a number of Neighborhood Energy Centers that can help you apply for assistance. Many, Price notes, are either not open or have limited hours during the coronavirus pandemic, but some are open virtually or by appointment.
According to CLS, some options include:
“They are places you can go and get help with a bunch of different applications at the same time,” Price says. “They have people who are able to work with you, and sit with you, and comprehensively address the issues you are facing.”
Joline Price, staff attorney with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia’s energy unit.