Financial hardships experienced by residents and business owners as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have led to unpaid bills for utilities, like electricity, gas and water over the past four months.
But it has not led to disruptions in services. And residents need not worry about being disconnected — yet.
Statewide moratoriums on disconnections due to financial hardships remain in place until September for residents and until August for commercial customers.
Still, utility service providers are asking residents and businesses experiencing hardships to contact them — because assistance, including repayment plans, is currently being under-utilized, according to the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.
PURA Chairwoman Marissa Gillett pointed to electricity and natural gas provider Eversource as one example.
Although Eversource services more than one million electric power customers and more than 200,000 natural gas customers across Connecticut, as of May, only around 4,000 residential customers had arranged payment plans due to COVID-19 hardships. Only 196 commercial customers had made similar arrangements.
Meanwhile, for that same month, Eversource had also reported more than $3.5 million in unpaid utility bills, Gillett said.
Eversource, according to its website, is offering customers COVID-19-related payment plans that would give customers 24 months to pay off outstanding balances, interest free. But customers must enroll by Nov. 1. Additional financial assistance is available for lower income households, according to Eversource.
“We certainly understand and recognize how challenging these times are for some of our customers,” Eversource spokesman Mitch Gross said. “And we continue to stress any customer who has had a difficult time paying their electric or natural gas bill because of the pandemic, if they have not contacted us, they need to contact us.”
Gross said Eversource’s COVID-19 payment program includes “very flexible payment arrangements.”
“Customers can pay down any balance they have accrued. We’re here to work with you,” Gross said. Hope to raiseawareness
Whether the moratoriums on utility shutoffs continue past their current expiration dates will depend on conditions due to the pandemic and the status of the state’s recovery.
Like Eversource, most other utility providers have established links on their websites explaining options. Some have also waged their own public awareness campaigns.
The Regional Water Authority, based in New Haven, is encouraging customers to seek assistance through its program. Temporarily, customers living at or below 250 percent of Federal Poverty Income Guidelines, are eligible for assistance, which includes grants of up to $175 toward residential water bills. A family of four whose annual income is $65,500 or less may qualify, according to a recent RWA announcement.
“These grants will help customers who may have fallen behind while out of work, or working less than normal, get back on their feet,” the RWA said in a statement.
Because the programs are being underutilized, PURA is gearing up to launch a wider public campaign, Gillett said.
“We’re hoping to work with towns and the legislature to bring more awareness to the payment plans,” Gillett said.
Once customers make arrangements, those plans are active for 24 months, with no interest on previous balances.Scam warning
At the same time PURA officials and utility company leaders are urging customers to take advantage of available assistance programs, they also warn customers should be vigilant about utility-related scams. PURA urged customers to exercise caution when receiving any solicitation related to their utility bills and to call their service providers directly.
Even after those moratoriums on disconnections expire, Gillet said PURA’s goals include making sure the repayment plans remain active and customers are able to rebound financially.
“We want to make sure if you are on a payment plan, and you are current with it, it can’t expire,” Gillett said.