As Utility Shutoffs Loom Next Week, New Data Show Hundreds of Thousands of Families and Small Businesses at Risk of Losing Electric, Heat and Water During Pandemic

Posted on 10/09/20

African woman holding paper bills using calculator, close up view

New Jersey’s investor-owned gas, electric and water utilities are ending their voluntary commitment to suspend shutoffs for non-payment during the COVID-19 pandemic, effective October 15.

New data shared by the state Board of Public Utilities show hundreds of thousands of families and small businesses at risk of losing access to these vital services, due to accumulated overdue bills. More than 444,000 residential electric and gas accounts were 90 days or more past due as of August, with an average balance of $600, representing massive increases from last year.

The state has not expanded financial assistance programs to support all of the customers who cannot afford to pay. Utilities began sending shutoff notices last month.  “There is no moratorium on this pandemic and now is not the time to end the moratorium on utility shut offs,” said Ev Liebman, AARP NJ Director of Advocacy. “The ability to maintain safe, affordable, and reliable utility services, including electricity, natural gas, water, telecommunications, and high-speed internet service is critical for health and safety and to stay engaged with work, education, and loved ones while preventing spread of the virus. This is especially important for older residents who are most vulnerable to the virus and those who are already struggling to make ends meet.”

The looming expiration could not come at a worse time, as the state faces a second wave of COVID-19 infections and an ongoing economic crisis. Consumer and environmental advocates are calling on Governor Murphy to extend the shutoff moratorium, ensure that it applies to customers of all electric, gas, and water utilities, and provide enhanced customer assistance programs to ensure that families do not lose vital services or spiral into utility debt amidst the unprecedented financial hardships many are experiencing. They are also urging the Board of Public Utilities to immediately investigate the pandemic’s impact on New Jersey residents’ and small businesses’ ability to afford their utility bills during the health and economic crisis in order to develop effective long-term solutions. 

“Well before this crisis, we knew that almost 40% of New Jersey residents were struggling, unable to meet all of their family’s basic needs, with people of color impacted the most. Forty-five percent of Black households and sixty percent of Latinx families were unable to withstand an emergency already without falling into poverty. This pandemic has only heightened the existing economic crisis for many people, putting them further behind and relief for arrears is needed now,” said Renee Koubiadis, Executive Director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey. “New Jersey must take action to prevent any utility shut off, including electricity, internet, or phone service, that could provide a critical disruption to children attending school or low-income workers from being able to maintain their at-home or in-person jobs.”

When Governor Murphy announced the October 15 end date, he did not address municipally-owned water utilities, which provide water to 60% of all New Jersey residents. On March 31, 2020, Governor Murphy announced via Twitter that the state’s hundreds of municipal water utilities all committed to “voluntarily halting all service shutoffs throughout this emergency.” This suggests an open-ended commitment to suspend water shutoffs until the end of the official Public Health Emergency. However, the state released no other details or clarifications following the governor’s tweet, has issued no binding orders, and has provided no updates on these utilities’ current or planned policies concerning water shutoffs.  Data recently shared by the BPU reveals a total of $354 million in residential customer arrears (up 53% from last year) and $232 million in commercial customer arrears (up 82% from last year).

To date, no comparable data has been provided for any water utilities. “The pandemic and ensuing economic crisis are putting a squeeze on working people in New Jersey, who shouldn’t be forced to skip on essentials to keep their water running,” said Food & Water Action New Jersey State Director Matt Smith. “This is not just an urgent matter of public health and safety; it is about economic justice and a recovery agenda that works for everyone in New Jersey.  The global pandemic underscores what is at stake, and Governor Murphy must do more to insure that the human right to water is protected for all New Jersey residents.” 

The state’s designated consumer advocate, the Division of Rate Counsel, last week filed a formal petition urging BPU not only to institute immediate shutoff protections, but also to collect comprehensive data from the utilities it regulates, and to develop long-term solutions to protect customers who are accumulating millions of dollars in arrears during the pandemic. The bulk of the increase in electric and gas arrears is due to a huge jump in the number of customers more than 90 days behind on their bills, as well as the average amount owed by these customers. Over 444,000 residential customers are 90 days or more past due, with an average arrearage among those customers of $600. Those customers’ arrears alone amount to $267 million, a 78% increase over the 90-day overdue amounts at the same time last year. “Under the state of emergency, the state implemented many temporary protections to keep New Jerseyans safe and well at home,” said Beverly Brown Ruggia, New Jersey Citizen Action Financial Justice Program Director. “But the level of housing insecurity we expect to hit residents and their families once the state of emergency is lifted, will be unprecedented, and potentially devastating. The potential for mass utility shut offs will only make matters worse, deepening housing insecurity and threatening the health and safety of tens of thousands of residents not to mention the livelihood of many small businesses across New Jersey. We urge the Governor and the BPU to implement comprehensive and universal measures to prevent any utility shut offs for electricity, heating or water, and to provide relief for arrears that struggling residents have accumulated during the pandemic.”

Despite the dramatic increase in the need for assistance, BPU’s data also shows a decrease in enrollment in all of the existing electric and gas customer assistance programs between 2019 and 2020. The extended moratorium provides an opportunity to develop programs and dedicate new funds to help these customers. “The threat of terminating vital heat and water utility services puts the health and safety of New Jersey’s most vulnerable households at great risk,” said David McMillin, an attorney at Legal Services of New Jersey. “Many low-income households continue to face financial setbacks as a result of the COVID pandemic. Most immediately, policy-makers must ensure that utility services stay on in every household that is struggling in the current crisis. At the same time, we need enhanced utility assistance measures as households work to get back on their feet.  These should be funded in substantial part by the utilities and their investors, who must be part of the solution for families facing economic hardship.” To date, neighboring states have afforded greater protections than New Jersey. In New York, no utility shut offs are allowed before the end of the COVID-19 state of emergency; customers who self-certify that they have experienced financial impacts from the COVID-19 emergency will receive extended protection through March 31, 2021, if the state of emergency ends before that date.  

New Jersey does have a winter termination program for BPU regulated electric and gas customers that starts November 15th through March 15th and which protects some residential customers from shut off of these services. Without action now, there will be a gap for those customers who do need protection. However, the winter termination program does not cover all essential utility services, including water, and may not support all those in need of protection as a result of theCOVID-19 pandemic.

Information about NJ’s current utility bill payment assistance programs for residential consumers can be found here: https://www.bpu.state.nj.us/bpu/assistance/programs/

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This story is provided by AARP New Jersey. Visit the AARP New Jersey page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.

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