State Sen. Kevin Parker (299831)
Credit: New York State Senate photo

No place in the United States has been hit harder from COVID-19 on a public health and economic basis than New York City, where consumers are reeling with the highest amount of utility arrears in the state. This is a crisis that disproportionately affects low- and fixed-income households in general and neighborhoods of color, “blended-status” and undocumented families in particular.

In December 2021, 419,309 Con Edison households were 60 days or greater behind on their utility bills for a total of $802 million. The utility sent out 128,299 termination notices that month, and 80,101 households were already “eligible” for a service shutoff. The city’s other energy utility, National Grid-NYC, had 296,261 households 60 days or more behind on their bills in December, for a total of $164 million. Grid sent out 112,422 termination notices and had more than 60,428 households already eligible for service termination.

Since each household is approximately two and a half persons, one must multiply each number by three to accurately reflect the number of New Yorkers severely behind on their electric and heating bills. In other words, approximately 700,000 households, or roughly 2 million New Yorkers, collectively owe more than $966 million to energy utilities, reflecting about 50% of New York State’s entire unpaid utility bill total of more than $1.7 billion (in November 2021). There is simply no ability for consumers to pay these massive debts; it will be years before these unaffordable bills can be paid by our neighbors, our communities and for many, our own households.

We can’t wait years for this crisis to fix itself. The shutoff protections granted under the Parker-Richardson law ceased on Dec. 21, and all utilities can lawfully restart service terminations as of Jan. 3, 2022. Despite verbal commitments from the energy utilities to halt disconnections until mid-April, the door is left open for water, telephone, internet, and cable providers. This means that the city’s water utility can begin to put tax liens on properties behind on bills and thus in danger of foreclosure. Internet, cable, and telephone providers can terminate service without regard to a household’s need to seek telemedicine, work from home, or educate our children who are most likely doomed for a third year of surprise school shifts to internet-based learning.

So, what can we do? First, the governor must work with the legislature to extend the moratorium since the solution to these unpaid bills will require using at least $1.25 billion in federal COVID relief funds in the 2022-2023 State Budget; like how the rent crisis was addressed in 2021. Second, since only energy utilities report the amount they are owed and how many households are in danger of termination, the governor and legislature must require all utilities to provide detailed data on the debts and exposure to shutoffs their customers face before the monies owed those non-energy utilities can be directly resolved. Last, New York must do better in the historic purpose of making utilities affordable. We cannot delay any longer and must reinstitute the utility service moratorium until these crippling debts are resolved.

I call on Gov. Hochul and my legislative colleagues to extend the utility moratorium and work with me to solve this financial crisis in the 2022-2023 budget and prevent millions of New Yorkers from being left in the cold and dark.

Senator Kevin Parker chairs the State Senate Committee on Energy & Telecommunications and represents District 21 in Brooklyn; Richard Berkley is the executive director of the Public Utility Law Project of New York.

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