Consumers and communities in crisis
New York’s COVID-19 state of emergency ended on June 24, 2021, but the affordability and utility backlog crisis affecting 1.5 million residential homes that use energy (electricity and gas ) statewide continues to worsen unresolved. Make no mistake, this crisis threatens our state’s future economic recovery, as well as the livelihoods of millions of low, fixed and moderate income residents of Buffalo to Brooklyn and Syracuse to Suffolk County.
Several hundred thousand households could not pay their utilities and other vital bills in the average month before COVID-19, but as the pandemic ravaged our communities economically, consumer debt skyrocketed across the board. sectors. Energy consumer debt has specifically increased 117% to $ 1.53 billion since February 2020, and those numbers don’t even take into account utilities that aren’t routinely tracked by regulators such as the telephone, water, internet and cable. PSEG / LIPA clients on Long Island are also struggling with historically unmanageable debt.
New York’s utility consumers were protected by the Parker-Richardson Act of 2021, a blanket ban on service disruptions that ended on June 24, 2021. Between March 2020 and now, the state agency responsible for regulating public services in the public interest, the Department of the Civil Service (“DPS”) has done virtually no public outreach to educate over-indebted residential consumers and small businesses about their rights. Most consumers are also unaware that they are entitled to a grace period ending December 21, 2021 to put their economy home in order and start working on reimbursement with their utilities. The Public Service Commission (“PSC”) also did not order utilities to conduct their own proactive public outreach, such as public service announcements or direct dialing of customers. Either way, consumers need to be educated by something more effective than a notice buried at the bottom of a closing letter or scary bill.
Low-income consumers, the elderly, immigrants and medically vulnerable consumers have been burdened with the duty to contact their utilities and know their rights, rather than the other way around. The task will be compounded by lack of internet, telephone or language access, and these vulnerable households will undoubtedly be harmed by these barriers to accessing legal rights created by the Parker-Richardson Moratorium Act. Finally, the DPS did not ask utilities to tell their customers to first avail themselves of the myriad of federal and state programs that offer financial assistance to late-paying consumers, before seeking a payment deal. deferral that could start to resolve their arrears, but also cut them. additional government assistance if given in the wrong order.
These failures to communicate the basic rights and needs of consumers in the face of the arrears crisis brought on by the pandemic are damaging enough in themselves, but are compounded by the fact that the progress of the PSC’s COVID-19 special procedure ( file 20-M-0266) have blocked completely. This is compounded by the inexplicable and almost complete failure of the state’s Office of Temporary Disability Assistance (“OTDA”), the funnel through which billions of dollars in federal consumer aid must pass, to take any definitive, transparent and responsible measure. No plan has been publicly presented by the PSC and DPS to address the unprecedented debt crisis and reduce looming threats of cuts in a manner consistent with the Fair Household Energy Practices Act. or the federally funded rent assistance and utilities program (“ERAP”). Regardless of these lost opportunities, it is irrefutably clear: it was time to act a year ago, but if the PSC and OTDA do not act transparently and decisively now, they doom millions of New- Yorkers to crush unnecessary and unpaid utility debt, and their communities to years of economic depression.
It took over a decade for economically vulnerable New York households to recover from the Great Recession. If our regulators continue to drag their feet, it may be necessary to wait until the next financial crisis for those hardest hit by COVID-19 – communities of color, low-income and medically vulnerable households, and the elderly – to recover financially.
Kevin Parker is a New York State (D-21) Senator. Richard Berkley, Esq., Is Executive Director and Ian Donaldson is Communications Assistant at the Public Utility Law Project of New York.