CHARLESTON — A general order issued earlier this year by the West Virginia Public Service Commission urging utilities to halt service disconnections for unpaid bills was set to expire Tuesday night.
The order was put in place in March, as the financial hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and related business shutdowns began to take hold. Now, any disconnection notices sent after July 1 could result in utility shutoffs, said Jackie Roberts, director of the PSC’s Consumer Advocacy Division.
“In March, the commission urged the utilities not to disconnect customers because of the pandemic. Fortunately, West Virginia utilities complied with that request,” Roberts said. “Now, it’s up to the utilities to decide when their disconnections will resume. Each utility may be different, and I urge customers to contact their utilities to determine what they intend to do and when they intend to do it.”
Roberts said customers who need help with bill payments should contact utility bill assistance programs to see if they qualify.
There are a number of these programs in the state, some run locally through churches and community organizations, and others statewide. A list of agencies that help with utility payments can be found online at http://www.cad.state.wv.us/BillAssistance.pdf.
Seth DiStefano, policy outreach director at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said while the state continues to reopen, the financial burden continues for many.
“It’s abundantly clear that the unemployment impact of COVID-19 and the economic sector impact of the pandemic are severe, very severe for West Virginians,” DiStefano said. “Even marginally coming back to work, families are struggling with food security, health care, rent, utilities. All of this is palatable for West Virginia families.”
According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, West Virginia’s unemployment rate in May, the most recent month reported, was about 13%, a drop from April’s 16%. While decreasing, the rate is still more than double the 5% unemployment rate from February, before the pandemic.
Thousands are still relying on unemployment benefits from WorkForce West Virginia to make ends meet, DiStefano said. Many others who qualify for those benefits are caught behind red tape, unable to access them and without any other source of income for the time being.
Roberts said she worries about the compounded reality of people being unable to pay for their utilities, while also potentially facing evictions as courts across the state reopen.
“West Virginia is still in the midst of a public health crisis and economic recovery,” Roberts said. “I am concerned for customers, especially because in some parts of the state, landlords can begin evicting tenants.”
The additional $600 weekly unemployment benefits and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program that was authorized by Congress earlier this year to help offset expenses for individuals and families affected by the pandemic is set to expire at the end of July. DiStefano said residents should be calling their representatives and urging them to act fast to ensure those benefits are extended or pass new legislation aimed at helping those affected by COVID-19.
“If that runs out, it will be a lot worse. Make no mistake, we won’t be back to where we were before this hit,” DiStefano said. “It will be worse. It will be catastrophically worse, and it will happen very, very quickly.”
The PSC is still urging utilities to document their COVID-19-related expenses, including loss of bill payments, so the information can be taken into consideration, if necessary, in future rate cases.
At a news briefing Friday, Gov. Jim Justice said some federal dollars provided to the state from the coronavirus relief bill will go toward helping public utilities offset costs incurred over the past few months, but DiStefano said this may not directly benefit state residents, and certainly won’t help soon enough.
“Direct cash assistance, to the people, is the most cost-effective way of taking care of people in times of crisis and making sure they weather the storm and get back on their feet. If you want to care for people, give them cash for their heating, electric, water bills,” DiStefano said.
“All things come back to having a safe place to live. You need a roof over your head; you need to wash your hands, do your laundry … these are basic, fundamental human rights. These are not things that are designated for one class of people and not another. These are things that should belong to everyone.”