“Many people are out of work [and] have no current source of income. That condition is likely to continue and possibly get worse,” said PUC Chair Margaret Curran. “Therefore, it’s necessary for us to address it through the powers that we have.”
At an emergency hearing of the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (PUC) held Monday, it was decided that effective immediately all electric, natural gas, water, and sewer utilities will immediately cease collections activities, including termination of service for nonpayment. The order is in effect through March 31 for non-residential customers and April 15 for residential accounts.
Only two members of the PUC were present, Chair Margaret Curran and member Abigail Anthony (the third seat is currently unfilled).
It was an unusually subdued hearing.
A hearing like this would normally have drawn a large crowd of ratepayer advocates from the George Wiley Center, but, “in order to encourage social distancing” representatives from the George Wiley Center asked members to not attend the hearing. Instead, Attorney Jennifer Wood attended the hearing on the George Wiley Center’s behalf.
“Note that the Governor has declared a state of emergency. The state is dealing with containing COVID-19 … clearly people throughout the state are being and will continue to be very significantly affected by this pandemic. Many people are out of work [and] have no current source of income. That condition is likely to continue and possibly get worse,” said Chair Curran. “Therefore, it’s necessary for us to address it through the powers that we have.”
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Despite the ban on certain collection activities, utility providers will still be able to send bills and reminder notices, and customers may still enroll in payment plans.
Further, customers who previously did not qualify for National Grid’s electric or gas discount rate for income-eligible customers, may, due to short-term unemployment, experience a reduction in their annual income this year such that it will bring them within the income guidelines. National Grid should be working to ensure that eligible customers are enrolled.
Also, effectively immediately and running until April 15, residential customers whose utility service has been terminated by National Grid for non-payment or who have a termination date scheduled, will be entitled to have service restored if they meet certain conditions:
- for a customer owing less than $1000, 10% of the balance owed must be paid and the remainder of that balance must be paid within 18 months;
- for a customer owing at least $1000 but less than $2500, 10% of the balance owed must be paid and the remainder of that balance must be paid within 24 months;
- for a customer owing $2500 or more, 10% of the balance owed must be paid and the remainder of that balance must be paid within 36 months unless the Company chooses to extend such time period;
The PUC will revisit the order for residential customers on April 13. The PUC will take public comment on the order until April 7.
The George Wiley Center did not get their demands met by the PUC. In a statement released before the hearing, the George Wiley Center’s Camilo Viveiros that:
“Although we are glad that the RI PUC is holding this emergency open meeting the George Wiley Center is asking for these three demands to address both this current health crisis and the underlining unfair utility structures that add to the severity of harm:
- Permanent Moratorium on all utility terminations (electric, gas, water and sewer)
- Emergency Implementation of Percentage Income Payment Plan (PIPP)
- Immediate Restoration of Utility Services for All Rhode Islanders
“PIPP is needed in order to prevent increased energy burden and long-term energy insecurity for low-income households in Rhode Island. This recent crisis has only added to the urgency of needing to implement this sound policy. PIPP would prevent those who would use this moment to make money off the seniors on fixed incomes, the disabled and low-income families. By immediately putting PIPP in place we have an antitode against unfair energy bill structures that add up to utility shut offs and fuel insecurity across Rhode Island. Immediate action to implement a Percentage Income Payment Plan will make a difference not only in addressing the consequences of dealing with this current health crisis adequately but will also prevent future hardship of our members at the George Wiley Center and for working class and low-income families across the state.”