Coronavirus: Millions are at risk of utilities being shut off as protections expire
Keeping the lights on is getting harder for millions of fighting Americans.
Government protection against electricity, water and gas shutdowns in the US will quickly expire as soon as colder weather emerges, unemployment remains high and the prospect of additional government aid remains uncertain.
Utility shutdown moratoriums will expire by mid-November in seven states, while protections will expire in six states by the end of the year, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association. In 33 countries, protection has expired or does not exist.
By the end of the month, 82 million households will not have shutdown protection, including 11 million households that were below the poverty line before the pandemic began and 10 million people who are unemployed, according to a study by Carbon Switch, an energy source efficiency start.
According to NEADA, millions of Americans are at risk of heat and electricity being turned off as statewide protection expires. (Graphic: David Foster)
"This is a public health crisis," said Mark Wolfe, executive director at the National Energy Assistance Directors Association. "Excluding so many people will have a knock-on effect on how your kids access their Zoom call, how you have access to electricity to function or run a refrigerator, and how you can lead normal lives."
"Leave customers at risk of connection during the pandemic"
According to statistics from the government's Energy Star program, the average U.S. household pays utility companies $ 167 a month. In states like Kansas and Idaho, where the minimum wage is $ 7.25 an hour, residents would spend nearly 15% of their monthly paychecks on utilities, assuming they can work 40 hours a week.
But a lot of people can't work that much. Almost a quarter of Americans reported that they cut their hours or cut their salaries even though they did not lose their jobs because of the economic fallout from the pandemic, according to a study by Pew Research.
Sandra Cruz, who lost her job because of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak and is four months behind her rent and is afraid of eviction, and her daughter Gabriella are waiting for a ride after picking up free groceries, distributed by the Chelsea Collaborative in Chelsea, Massachusetts, USA, July 22, 2020. REUTERS / Brian Snyder TPX PICTURES OF THE DAY
While the CARES bill, passed in March, provided $ 900 million to complement the Low Income Home Energy Assistance program that helps low-income households pay for heating and cooling bills, many local and state offices have their doors for new ones, according to Karen Lusson Applicant closed, attorney for the National Consumer Law Center, a nonprofit that focuses on low income populations.
It can also be difficult to get help from vendors. In states like Colorado and Florida, protections against utility shutdowns vary by provider. While the majority of them may offer payment plans, they do not excuse rent-burdened Americans of late fees and the amount owed.
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"The states where public service commissions don't oblige utilities to create flexible payment arrangements and debt relief are putting customers at risk of connecting during the pandemic," Lusson said.
Another complication: many Americans mistake utility companies for state owned when they are actually private companies.
Protesters demonstrate against law enforcement agencies who forcibly remove people from their homes on September 1, 2020 in New York City during a National Day of No Evictions, No Police. Activists and aid groups in the United States scramble to stave off a monumental wave of displacement across the country as the coronavirus crisis threatens tens of millions of people from homelessness. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP) (Photo by ANGELA WEISS / AFP via Getty Images)
"People believe that utilities are run by government agencies and so are excused," said Carlos Martin, senior fellow at the Urban Institute's Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. "A shutdown moratorium means your private utility cannot shutdown your electricity. However, if that moratorium ends, it doesn't mean you are off the hook for all the energy you've been using."
The government must intervene
While utilities can apply for credit under the federal government's payment protection program to ease their burden when customers fail to pay, there is less help available to individuals.
"The nationwide public utility commissions must support customers who have dire financial needs and cannot afford their utility bills," said Lusson. "The measures that these commissions can take are debt relief programs, provide flexible credit and collection processes, and ensure that previously disconnected consumers are connected with no fees."
But some state regulators have sided with utilities instead. In Florida, state regulators rejected a proposal from the League of United Latin American Citizens of Florida and two utility customers for a 90-day moratorium on breakups. Regulators agreed that utility companies are already helping consumers by providing payment plans.
Federal relief is also needed, particularly for arrears, Lusson said.
The revised HEROES bill passed by Parliament included $ 4.5 billion for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance program. However, talks about the next stimulus package remain stalled even as the pandemic continues and injures many Americans, especially low-income families.
"You have millions of impoverished families who have no resources," said Wolfe. "Congress has to step in and pay those bills or these utilities will write off those arrears and raise prices for residents."
Dhara is a reporter for Yahoo Money and Cashay. Follow her on Twitter at @Dsinghx.
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