“The disconnection of Black, Brown and poor residents’ utilities in the state of Georgia is a form of systemic environmental injustice,” said Valerie Hill Rawls, director of the initiative, which was formed earlier this year to educate Blacks in rural counties and those living in the “Black Belt” region of the state about environmental injustice and coronavirus. “This will have a devastating effect on those who have been impacted the hardest by Covid-19, loss of wages and now the potential loss of access to gas and electricity,” Rawls said.
She is also concerned sweltering heat in the summer months, and the increased need for additional cooling, water and medical equipment respiratory illnesses, could exacerbate the issue of utility disconnections even further.
“So it won’t just be the day-to-day need to turn on your lights or your stove for food for cooking, it’s actually going to drill down to basic health concerns from the heat that’s upon us,” Rawls said.
‘Unpaid utilities bills ultimately will result in higher rates for all customers’
Providers are prohibited from disconnecting those who have “a serious illness which would be aggravated by said discontinuance” — including Covid-19 infections or complications.
The commission also prohibits utility providers it regulates from disconnecting utility services between November 15 and March 15 as long as customers agree to pay the unpaid balance. The commission also prohibits disconnections for customers on any day a heat advisory and excessive heat warning is in effect by the National Weather Service prior to 8 a.m. ET.
However, “if someone was cut off when the temperatures were cool and didn’t make arrangements to reconnect before a heat wave came in, the utility would not have to reconnect,” Tom Krause, a spokesman for the group wrote CNN in a statement.
Asked about utility providers resuming disconnections during the pandemic, Krause defended the move, saying that once the moratorium was lifted “the economy was re-opened and most people resumed work.”
“Ending the moratorium helps to ensure customers do not fall further behind on their bills, which would create an even more difficult situation for many,” Krause wrote CNN in a statement.
He added that “unpaid utilities bills ultimately will result in higher rates for all customers” and referred those with trouble making payments to federal programs as well as the Salvation Army for assistance.
Prior to the pandemic, keeping the lights on and having running water has been a struggle for many Americans who were already living paycheck to paycheck, experts say.
And while there are federal programs and community organizations that offer financial assistance to struggling families, it may not be enough during the pandemic.
Mark Wolfe, executive director of NEADA, told CNN based on the data the organization has collected so far, up to 6% of American households could be put at risk of shut-offs, adding “if Congress does not extend unemployment, it could be a catastrophe for many Americans” regarding utilities, food and rent.
“We’re estimating that there were about 28 million households eligible for energy assistance before Covid-19 hit, we’re thinking it’s about 20% higher…the number of people that are low income with very limited resources is quite large right now,” he said.
Action beyond a ‘temporary solution’
Jason Bailey, special economic justice counsel for the NAACP LDF, which has urged state and local governments to impose a moratorium on shutoffs during the pandemic, told CNN the federal government should “step in and pass something that not only protects companies and people.” Bailey also said states are taking a “piecemeal” approach on shut offs because there is no national leadership.
The $2 trillion CARES Act allocated $900 million to relief for low-income families and there is bipartisan support for additional funding for the program. Wolfe said that $900 million is not enough and added that a national moratorium on shut offs is a temporary solution until there is a solution on how to pay the bills. He also said some utility companies should embrace forgiveness programs similar to those offered by some utility companies in Connecticut.
Michigan Rep. Brenda Lawrence is one of several Democrat lawmakers in favor of a nationwide moratorium on utility shut offs. Lawrence told CNN looking at programs such as SNAP and WIC that are based on income and need as well as regulating water could help curb the impact of utility shut offs felt by customers and providers.
“In America you can get food stamps, you can get WIC, you can get food so that you will not be hungry in America. We’re going to have to look at that policy,” she said. “And we need to regulate the water just like we do other utilities to ensure we are not overcharging, that they’re efficient.”
Last month, Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mike Crapo of Idaho sent a joint letter to Senate leadership urging them to “reject proposals that would unintentionally restrict how utility service providers, including electric, natural gas, and water utilities, work with their customers and manage their businesses.”
Helping people after the public health crisis ends
Bailey said he and the NAACP LDF is worried people will have their utilities shut off once the coronavirus pandemic ends.
“We need to think long and hard about helping people once the pandemic ends,” Bailey said. “It’s only going to exacerbate things in the Black community with Covid-19 if these things aren’t in place.”