Millions of Americans risk losing power and water as massive, unpaid utility bills pile up
This Tuesday marked 67 days of darkness for Kenneth Parson. He fell behind on his utility bills in the spring -- and his lights went off, and stayed off, starting at the end of July.
No power meant no refrigerator, so Parson, a 62-year-old with diabetes in Griffin, Ga., had no choice but to store his temperature-sensitive insulin on ice in a small cooler. He didn't have an easy way to cook at home, either, so his wife, Cheryl, took to preparing some meals for him in a neighbor's kitchen.
In those first few days after they lost electricity, Cheryl had pleaded on Parson's behalf with city officials who manage their local utilities, hoping she might change their minds in the middle of a pandemic that has left families nationwide struggling to cover their once-manageable costs of living.
"They said they couldn't do nothing for him," lamented Cheryl, 65, who lives apart from her husband but remains married and helps him manage his health conditions. "It peeved me off."
The worst economic crisis in more than a generation has thrust potentially millions of Americans across the country into a similar, sudden peril: Cash-strapped, and in some cases still unemployed, they have fallen far behind on their electricity, water and gas bills, staring down the prospect of potential utility shut-offs and fast-growing debts they may never be able to repay.
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, many states acted quickly to ensure their residents would not lose their power or other utilities if their jobs or wages were slashed. Now, however, only 21 states and the District of Columbia still have such disconnection bans in place. That leaves roughly 179 million Americans at risk of losing service even as the economy continues sputtering, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, which is tracking the moratoria. Millions more in nine other states are set to lose their protections starting Thursday and throughout the fall, the group found.
Americans nationwide also appear to be racking up massive unpaid bills in the process. Electric and gas debts alone threaten to reach or exceed $24.3 billion by the end of the year, according to a new NEADA analysis, released Thursday, based on roughly two dozen' states regulatory filings. In some cases, the delinquencies appear to be severe. In Indiana, for example, more than 112,000 households are behind 120 days or more on their power bills, a Washington Post analysis of the largest local energy companies' records found. The debt, totaling millions of dollars, is four times greater than the arrears accrued during the same period in 2019, the data shows.
"The people who were struggling before are struggling even more," said Mark Wolfe, the NEADA's executive director.
Utility companies generally are not required to disclose how many Americans are behind on their payments, and by how much, complicating efforts to study the effects of the pandemic and craft effective policy responses. In some cases, power, water and gas providers have actively lobbied against the kind of robust shut-off moratoria that advocates say are essential.
But the scattershot data and grim anecdotal tales appear to point to the same conclusion: Americans already on the financial precipice are coming even closer to the edge. Such a crisis threatens not only their health and well-being but that of the utilities themselves, some of which are already signaling they may have to raise rates or take other drastic steps to make up for the anticipated losses.
"You can't really underestimate the burden of that debt on families," said Khalil Shahyd, a senior policy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's also going to have wider ramifications for our economy and our ability to recover from this crisis."
The torrent of missed electric, water and gas payments underscores the severe cash crunch that continues to plague Americans nearly seven months after the deadly coronavirus sent the U.S. economy into a tailspin. Nationally, nearly one-third of adults still say they face difficulty meeting their regular household expenses, according to the most recent survey by the U.S. Census Bureau. That dour figure is compounded by the fact that 870,000 new workers filed for unemployment assistance the week of Sept. 19.
At the height of the crisis, Congress in the spring responded with nearly $3 trillion in stimulus spending that aimed to boost unemployed workers' weekly benefits, dispatch one-time checks to all Americans and augment existing safety-net programs, including funds to help Americans pay for their electricity. But much of the money has been spent or has expired, all the while lawmakers have bickered over the need for another round of relief.
"The data paints a grim picture," said Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the chamber's Environment and Public Works Committee, adding that lawmakers need to "come together and do something that brings relief to Americans who are hurting right now."
Outside of Washington, Americans' wide-ranging economic struggles have been laid bare in little-noticed regulatory filings by the water, power and gas companies that are supposed to serve them.
In Wisconsin, residents fell behind on their electricity bills in August: An average of three in 10 customers at five electric and gas utilities missed payments, totaling $235 million in arrears, state records show. That's more than double the average rate they registered in 2019, according to a presentation filed this month in a regulatory proceeding. As the coronavirus ravages the state, Wisconsin's utility commission last month opted to extend its shut-off moratorium into next spring, aiming to protect public health and ensure students stuck learning at home aren't trying to do so in the dark.
"The curve is going the wrong way," said Rebecca Cameron Valcq, who chairs the regulatory body. "We are seeing large-scale spread, and to take away people's ability to practice the proper hygiene and to practice social distancing -- the last thing we needed to do was to allow their utilities to be disconnected."
More than 68,000 Nevada residents and small businesses were behind on their payments last month, the Nevada Power Company recently told regulators, and half are past due by more than 90 days. The energy provider said that has left it facing $29.5 million in arrears by mid-August -- four times as much as the same time last year. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
In many ways, the late or missing payments stem from the fact that states merely suspended collections, disconnections and late fees -- but didn't waive the bills that Americans racked up. Much like the country's emerging housing crisis, as renters deferred monthly payments without risk of eviction, so too did many families hold off on paying their water, electricity or gas. In both cases, these families may owe potentially insurmountable sums once they come due, only adding to their financial woes.
"I imagine if people accumulate a lot of utility debt during the moratorium, and while they were laid off, it's going to be really difficult for people to catch up," said Mary Grant, who oversees work on water policy at Food and Water Watch, an advocacy group. Less than half of the country is protected from water shut-offs, she said, and another 26 cities and states are set to allow their protections to expire over the next month.
Nationwide, many states have faced a difficult choice in deciding whether to extend or terminate their shut-off protections as the economy has started to rebound. Some states have often relaxed their rules as power providers and other utilities commit to voluntary measures, including efforts making it easier for their customers to enroll in payment plans.
But local regulators also have faced a barrage of lobbying on the part of utilities, which have sounded alarms that long-term moratoria may leave them unable to collect on Americans' ever-growing, unpaid bills.
An association for energy providers in Pennsylvania said in its August correspondence with the state that it had registered $403 million in arrears compared with $290 million at the same time in 2019. In doing so, the lobbying group still urged the Keystone State to cancel its shut-off moratorium, arguing that "circumstances have changed since March" -- and other solutions, such as payment plans, would work better.
"This situation isn't good for the customers who are falling behind, it's not good for the general body of ratepayers because they're going to be called on to pay for some part of that debt expense, and it's not good for utility shareholders, who face the risk of the money not being recovered," said Terry Fitzpatrick, the president of the Energy Association of Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania ultimately did not act on the request, essentially keeping the disconnection ban in place, but local activists expressed alarm at the potential financial hurt on the horizon.
"All the dominoes are about to fall," said Elizabeth Marx, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project, which advocates on behalf of low-income residents in need. "When you lift the moratorium, those households that are struggling will be worse off."
These regulatory decisions carry great weight: Utility companies could later try to seek permission to raise rates on everyone if they experience substantial losses. A slew of unpaid utility bills in 2020 could mean higher prices for Americans in 2021 or beyond, a likely outcome in the eyes of some industry analysts.
"Their cash flow is becoming more strapped because they're not collecting that money from ratepayers, but there are still incremental costs to providing service," said Lillian Federico, a research director tracking energy at S&P Global. "As you get further down the line, [utility] commissions are having to decide, 'Do we want to allow to have companies recover these arrearages?' "
The stakes are even higher in communities where municipalities own their own water, electric or gas utilities. With local budgets in disarray -- and billions of dollars in long-sought local aid unlikely to come from Washington -- many of these cities simply cannot afford the kind of losses their investor-owned counterparts might be able to stomach.
In North Carolina, roughly 1 million residents over the summer fell behind on their electricity bills, leading rural cities to beg the state to cancel its moratorium. In Georgia, meanwhile, the state's short-lived utility shut-off moratorium applied only to private entities such as Georgia Power. But municipally owned power sources -- including in Griffin, the city of 23,000 where the Parson family lives -- had followed suit voluntarily for only a short time. The city manager did not respond to a request for comment.
Even without the shut-off bans, the arrival of cold weather automatically triggers seasonal protections throughout the country, giving Americans at least some relief entering the more expensive winter months. But those bans vary widely, and in some cases, they protect only certain low-income residents from utility shut-offs -- a far cry from the more robust rules put in place earlier in the pandemic.
Instead, advocates across the country say the real solution must be federal in nature, beginning with billions of dollars in new spending to help low-income Americans pay their utility bills. For one thing, one of the government's major programs -- known in the industry as LIHEAP -- covers energy and not water service. House lawmakers recently proposed funding to help families cover their water bills, but it has not gained significant traction even at a time when hand-washing is paramount.
Absent another injection of federal aid, Wolfe, who represents state energy officials at the NEADA, described the situation as a "cliff" on the imminent horizon for potentially millions of Americans nationwide.
"The current system," he said, "is not designed to help that many people."