New York’s COVID-19 state of emergency ended June 24, 2021, but the affordability and utility arrears crises that affect 1.5 million residential energy (electric and gas) consumer households statewide continues to worsen unaddressed. Make no mistake about it, this crisis threatens our state’s future economic recovery, as well as the livelihood of millions of low-, fixed-, and moderate-income residents from Buffalo to Brooklyn and Syracuse to Suffolk County.
Many hundreds of thousands of households could not afford their utility and other vital bills in an average month prior to COVID-19, but as the pandemic economically ravaged our communities, consumer debt skyrocketed across all sectors. Energy consumer debt specifically ballooned 117% to $1.53 billion since February of 2020, and these figures do not even account for any utilities that are not systematically tracked by regulators such as telephone, water, internet and cable. Customers of PSEG/ LIPA on Long Island are equally grappling with historically unmanageable debts.
New York’s utility consumers were protected under the Parker-Richardson Act of 2021, a blanket prohibition against service shut offs that ended on June 24, 2021. Between March of 2020 and now, the state agency charged with regulating the utilities in the public’s interest, the Department of Public Service (“DPS”), has done almost zero public outreach to explain to debt-burdened residential and small business consumers what rights they have. Most consumers are also unaware they have a right to a grace period ending December 21, 2021, to get their economic house in order and begin working on repayment with their utilities. Nor has the Public Service Commission (“PSC”) ordered the utilities to conduct their own proactive public outreach, such as public service announcements or direct dialing the customers. In any case, consumers must be educated by something more effective than a notice buried in the bottom of a shutoff letter or frighteningly large bill.
Low-income, senior, immigrant and medically vulnerable consumers have been burdened with the duty to reach out to their utilities and find out their rights, rather than vice-versa. The task will be worsened by lack of internet or telephone or language access problems, and these vulnerable households will undoubtedly be harmed by these barriers to accessing the legal rights created by the Parker-Richardson Moratorium Act. Finally, the DPS has not required utilities to tell their customers to first avail themselves of the myriad federal and state programs that offer financial assistance to consumers in arrears, before seeking a deferred payment agreement that could begin resolving their arrears, but also cut them off from further government help if given in the wrong order.
These failures to communicate basic consumer rights and needs in the face of the pandemic-caused arrears crisis are harmful enough on their own but are compounded by the fact that progress in the PSC’s special COVID-19 (Case 20-M-0266) proceeding has completely stalled. This is worsened by the inexplicable, almost complete failure by the State’s Office of Temporary Disability Assistance (“OTDA”), the funnel though which billions of dollars of federal relief to consumers must flow, to take any definitive transparent and accountable action. No plans have been put forward publicly by the PSC and DPS to address the unprecedented debt crisis and reduce the impending threats of shutoffs in a manner compliant with the Home Energy Fair Practices Act, or the federally funded Emergency Rent and Utility Assistance Program (“ERAP”). Regardless of those lost opportunities, it is irrefutably clear: the time to act was a year ago, but if the PSC and OTDA do not act transparently and decisively now, they are dooming millions of New Yorkers to crushing unnecessary and unpaid utility debt, and their communities to years of economic depression.
It took more than a decade for New York’s economically vulnerable households to bounce back from the Great Recession. If our regulators continue to drag their feet, it might just take until the next financial meltdown for those hit hardest by COVID-19––communities of color, low-income and medically vulnerable households, and seniors––to recover financially.
Kevin Parker is a New York State senator (D-21). Richard Berkley, Esq., is executive director and Ian Donaldson is communications aide of the Public Utility Law Project of New York.