Congress under pressure as states lift electricity shut-off bans during coronavirus crisis

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Sunday, August 9, 2020

As disconnections loom, lawmakers are at odds about what to do next

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) has sponsored legislation for a federal ban on electricity and water shut-offs during the pandemic. (Pete Marovich/Getty Images)
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) has sponsored legislation for a federal ban on electricity and water shut-offs during the pandemic. (Pete Marovich/Getty Images)

When Teasha Watkins fell behind on her electric bill and lost her power in 2014, she sought donations from churches and stayed with a friend. She ultimately had to move out of her apartment in western Virginia despite the aid. “The landlord evicted us because they said without the lights we couldn’t stay there,” she said.

Watkins, who recently cut back on her hours working as a medical assistant at a nursing home, got another notice this March at the start of the coronavirus crisis that her power was going to be disconnected again. But something different happened: Her electric utility, American Electric Power, apologized and set up an extension, she said.

The decision by dozens of states to ban utilities from cutting off electricity as the novel coronavirus gripped the nation was a crucial lifeline to keeping the lights on for many Americans. Tens of millions of people lost their jobs and income while being asked to stay home to stop the spread of the deadly virus.

Even in states without restrictions, many utilities promised to keep the power going for those unable to pay during the unprecedented health and economic crisis.

But those governors’ orders are starting to expire. Already, some utilities are resuming shut-offs for those behind on their bills during the sweltering summer months when air conditioning is most needed.

Calls from advocates and congressional Democrats are growing louder for the federal government to step in and issue a nationwide ban on shut-offs. They are eyeing the upcoming coronavirus relief package, which administration officials and lawmakers are negotiating, as their best chance to pass a moratorium.

House Democrats passed a relief bill in May that included assistance for paying utility bills and a nationwide moratorium on electricity disconnections for four months after the national emergency is declared over, but the provisions were not included in the Senate GOP proposal.

“This is the worst possible time for a family to lose access to electricity,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who is sponsoring separate legislation for a federal ban on electricity and water shut-offs but hopes the restrictions will be included in the broader aid bill.

“They’re being asked to stay home, try to prevent the spread, and you absolutely have to have the fundamentals to function,” said Merkley, whose proposal is supported by the Senate’s top Democrat, Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

But for months, investor-owned power companies have lobbied against federal intervention, arguing that it would be better for them to work with local regulators to respond to a viral outbreak that is hitting each state differently.

Thomas Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, a trade association for investor-owned electric utilities, told congressional leaders in an April 28 letter that a nationwide ban on shut-offs and debt collection “fails to recognize that different states will recover at different times from the pandemic and, instead, imposes a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to recovery.”

Investor-owned utilities were quick to offer relief to customers at the beginning of the outbreak. All of EEI’s members suspended disconnections for nonpayment in March because of the virus, and the trade group urged Congress to boost funding for an energy assistance program for the poor.

But the Center for Biological Diversity, one of several left-leaning advocacy groups pushing for a federal ban on shut-offs, argues that those commitments from companies are not legally binding and can be undone at any time.

“We can’t rely on corporate largesse to get us through this,” said Jean Su, a staff attorney at the organization.

A total of 32 states, plus the District of Columbia, put in place legal restrictions on electricity disconnections during the pandemic, according to an analysis from the Center for Biological Diversity. But since late May, 10 states — Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, South Carolina and Texas — have ended their shut-off bans. Another dozen states’ restrictions are scheduled to expire by early September.

The challenge to keep the lights on may only get worse for many Americans as the country continues to sink into an economic recession. Congress allowed an enhanced $600-per-week unemployment benefit to expire for 30 million people, further straining many families’ finances, and a federal moratorium on evictions also expired last week.

Michelle Smith, of Wichita, borrowed money from her mother in March to keep her lights on after being laid off from her job as a waitress.

She was eventually able to pay that and other bills with the extra unemployment money. “I got caught up on my bills and got to stay home and not freak out,” Smith said.

But now with the extra $600 a week gone, she is worried and is searching for a part-time job to do from home while her husband works as a cook and she takes care of her two daughters. “Things will be super tight,” she said.

Even if disconnections are banned nationally, many customers will still be on the hook to pay deferred bills.

Between April and June in North Carolina, where shut-offs are banned until September, residents were late for or missed $218 million in electric, water and sewage payments — nearly double the amount from the same time last year.

“Pretty clearly, [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump never listen to people in pain. They just don’t,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who in addition to supporting a federal ban on disconnections is seeking $100 billion in emergency assistance to help people pay rent and utility bills.

Some members of McConnell’s caucus have urged him to stand firm against a moratorium.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) warned McConnell and Schumer in a June 2 letter that a federal shut-off moratorium for electricity, gas and water would be “unprecedented” and was likely to lead to “increasing rates for those who do have the means to pay their bills.”

Lower-earning Americans — and minorities — are more likely to be affected by the problem. A survey by Indiana University researchers in May found that 13 percent of households at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line could not pay an energy bill the previous month — three times as high as the previous two months. For a family of four last year, that annual income threshold was $51,500.

The study, conducted online by YouGov, also found that African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans were more likely to have trouble paying for electricity during the pandemic. “Covid is revealing or exacerbating some deep-rooted inequalities,” said Sanya Carley, a professor at Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

And not everyone was protected by governors’ orders, which often apply only to larger corporate electric utilities, leaving customers of rural cooperatives and other power providers vulnerable to shut-offs.

Disconnections are resuming soon as the state bans expire. Duke Energy, which serves about 7.4 million electric customers across six states, went beyond other power providers in March by voluntarily suspending shut-offs and waiving late fees. But the Charlotte-based electric power company is preparing to resume disconnections in Florida, Indiana and Ohio.

“We will continue to assist customers experiencing economic hardship from the pandemic as we begin to return to standard billing and payment practices” in those states, spokesman Philip Sgro said.

AEP, too, voluntarily stopped disconnections in March. But a month later, the Columbus, Ohio-based utility was lobbying against a federal ban on shut-offs, according to a public records request obtained by the Energy and Policy Institute, a clean-energy advocacy group.

The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, which represents state public service commissioners nationwide, also opposes a federal intervention on its regulatory members’ turf.

David Pomerantz, head of the Energy and Policy Institute, says electric utilities are trying to have it both ways. “They say they’re going to do the right thing by keeping the lights and air conditioning on during summer heat waves, all while furiously lobbying behind the scenes to avoid being held accountable to that promise,” he said.

AEP has since resumed shut-offs in Oklahoma, as well as for “a very small number” of customers in Michigan, according to spokeswoman Melissa McHenry. “Disconnecting customers is always our last resort when dealing with unpaid bills, and customers who work with us on a payment plan will not be disconnected,” McHenry said.

Watkins, who gets her power from AEP in Virginia, is now attending online nursing school and is grateful AEP stopped disconnections in March. But Virginia is among the states scheduled to lift their moratoriums on Sept. 1.

“That’s good,” Watkins said. “But I’m just thinking: When they’re done doing that, the people that haven’t been able to pay or just pay a little bit, are they going to have to pay that big amount right then, or their stuff is going to be turned off?”