Letter to the Editor October 28

Utility rights and protections under COVID-19

October 28, 2020
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Dear Editor,

This year has been especially turbulent. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of New York City residents. The pandemic catalyzed historically massive unemployment, shifted the burden of daytime electricity costs from employers to ratepayers and vastly increased the number of people behind on their utility bills to more than 1.1 million households sixty days or more in arrears, for a total of more than $900 million. Now more than ever, its vital for people to know what their utility rights are, and what to do if faced with a shutoff notice from their energy, telephone or water utility.

There are numerous COVID-19 protections available to consumers, but utility companies and the Department of Public Service (New York’s utility regulator) have not effectively communicated those rights and remedies to New York’s low-income, fixed-income and medically vulnerable households. The Parker/Mosley Utility Moratorium Law, signed by Governor Cuomo in June 2020, protects utility consumers from shutoffs arising from inability to pay electric, gas, telephone or water bills. Although
these comprehensive protections will expire whenever the COVID-19 State of Emergency is lifted, utility consumers can receive up to an additional 180-days of protection against losing service by calling the utility and self-certifying to a change in income due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is an easy process that can be done over the phone and will protect a financially fragile family until March 31, 2021.

Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature’s leadership has protected consumers during an enormous financial crisis and a public health emergency unmatched since the 1918 Flu Pandemic. But, the Federal Communications Commission and Congress have failed to protect utility consumers from termination of their cable, cable-phone or internet service in their time of greatest need despite the overwhelming dangerous public health crisis that will lead to as much as 500,000 fatalities by March 31, 2021. Unlike our State elected leaders, the federal government has not protected our health, our financial status and our children’s need to receive education remotely over the internet. They have failed, where our state has not.

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As much as one-third of New York utility consumers were unable to pay their utility bills completely each month even before the pandemic and economic collapse. Now, when the amount individual households owe has grown by more than 40 percent since February of 2020, and the number of households in arrears 60-days or more has grown more than 20 percent, consumers must be informed where to look for the resources that may help them. With winter on its way, regulators and utility companies need to get out in front of the issue so that low-income and other vulnerable residents are not left in the cold.

– Richard Berkley, Esq, Executive Director of the Public Utility Law Project of New York, and Yasin Hassan, Policy Intern with the Public Utility Law Project of New York

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