Texas Public Utility Commission cuts protection from shutoffs amid pandemic

Jordan Smith
By Jordan Smith
For business

 

(May 6, 2020)

The Public Utility Commission has shortened the moratorium on utility shutoffs for low income customers in Texas. Responding to the coronavirus outbreak in late March, the PUC initially banned shutoffs by retail electricity providers for six months for anyone receiving SNAP benefits or unemployment payments. However, the latest ruling states the prohibition will expire July 17, just under four months after it began.

“As the world deals with an unprecedented array of challenges, we are working closely with industry participants, consumer advocates, and other state agencies to ensure we are taking the steps necessary to assist those customers impacted the hardest by the pandemic,” said PUC chairman DeAnn Walker.

Andrew Barlow, spokesman for the PUC, added that allowing the suspension to last six months would cause problems for electricity providers. “If we don’t take effective measures to maintain the strength of that retail competition marketplace, a lot of companies could go belly up,” he argued.

The PUC also agreed to earlier expiration dates for several additional assistance measures. A ban on water and sewage disconnections, two services which are regulated by the PUC, expires May 15, along with a late fee waiver program for utility customers. Outside of the competitive marketplace, including in areas served by Entergy, SWEPCO, El Paso Electric, and SPS, a moratorium on disconnections also expires on May 15.

Consumer advocates criticize decision

Bay Skoggin of the Texas Public Interest Research Group believes the assistance programs should be expanded, not restricted. Skoggin pointed to the millions of applications for unemployment benefits to underscore how many Texans are struggling. “The more protections for consumers, the better off the state,” Skoggin added.

Figures showing the number of concerned customers contacting the PUC for help suggest more assistance is needed. According to KXAN, between 10,000 and 13,000 residential utility customers are calling the PUC daily because they fear not being able to pay for electricity and water charges.

Even when the PUC was committed to the six-month moratorium, consumer groups argued the plan was inadequate. “This is a good first step, but additional action is needed to blunt the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Texas residents struggling to pay their bills,” noted Kaiba White, an energy policy specialist for Public Citizen.

Critics pointed out that the PUC’s measures do not include protections for small businesses, such as bars and restaurants, many of which have suffered major losses due to government-imposed lockdowns. Additionally, they noted that no financial assistance was made available to customers.

Customers struggle to opt in to moratorium

Another problem appears to be that some customers have failed to get onto the PUC’s program. One Santa Fe resident told the Texas Tribune that although she tried to opt in to the PUC’s moratorium after she and her husband were laid off, she couldn’t get through by phone.

“I spent all of our money on food,” said Carly Eaves, a mother of three. “That’s all that I could do. For a family of five with no income, we didn’t have enough for anything else.”

Walker, the chairman of the PUC, acknowledges that many customers have complained about the difficulty of opting in to the moratorium. Some have said they’ve spent hours on hold, while others have not received callbacks that were promised. Several customers also report that their utilities were cut off even though they opted into the PUC’s moratorium.

Walker also pointed to problems customers are having when they try contacting their electricity provider directly. “Several of the complaints we’ve gotten is that they have called, asked for deferred payment plans and said, no, we’re only going to extend you for 10 days, and we’re going to give you this extension for 10 days and until you can work through things,” explained Walker. “That is not the intent.”

Utilities offer their own assistance

Some utilities in Texas have rolled out their own assistance programs to help customers.

In Austin, municipally-owned Austin Energy is participating in a $46 million program to support customers with bill payments through the end of September. “Austin Energy is part of this community and we must do everything we can to reduce costs for customers who are helping our community by staying home,” said Jackie Sergeant, the utility’s general manager. “We’re also making sure those who have suffered a loss of income during this unprecedented crisis can come to us for additional utility bill assistance.”

TXU Energy, which serves over 2 million customers across the state, is pledging to waive late fees and extend payment due dates during the crisis. The utility is also offering customers the option of deferring balances across five payment installments.

 

Jordan Smith is a freelance journalist and translator covering issues related to energy, the environment, and politics. His work has appeared on the independent news site Opposing Views, and at the Canadian Labour Institute.

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