Front Porch Blog

Utilities must suspend service disconnections and waive late fees

UPDATE: March 31, 2020

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order on March 31 directing all electric, gas, water and wastewater utilities in the state to immediately suspend service disconnections for at least 60 days. The order also prohibits utilities from collecting late fees and gives residential customers at least six months to pay outstanding bills. Gov. Cooper urged telecommunication companies that provide phone, cable and internet services to follow these same rules.

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, all electric, water, telephone and internet utilities should immediately suspend service disconnections and late payment fees. Some have already taken this step, whether voluntarily or after being ordered by state and local regulatory authorities. And on March 20, 16 U.S. Senators urged Senate leadership to enact legislation accomplishing this nationwide.

public utility and state responses to Covid-19

Map by Courtney Alley

The reason for this sudden need is clear: from March 15-21, nearly 3.3 million people filed for unemployment in the United States due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. That number could be as high as 14 million by the summer, according to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute.

Additionally, 30 states and the District of Columbia so far have issued stay-at-home orders, and many in the U.S. and abroad are isolating themselves at home if they are able. It would be nothing short of cruel to cut off power or charge late fees to people who are stuck at home and financially strained from this crisis, including people who may be sick or caring for others and those who rely on electricity and internet for work and school.

On March 23, Appalachian Voices and 28 other organizations sent a letter to North Carolina leadership commending the N.C. Utilities Commission for suspending service disconnections and waiving late fees for the utilities it regulates, while also urging Gov. Roy Cooper to expand the order to all utilities in the state. N.C. Attorney General Joshua Stein asked the same thing of these unregulated utilities on March 26.

Then on March 31, Gov. Cooper issued an executive order directing all North Carolina utilities to suspend service connections for 60 days and giving residential customers at least six months to pay outstanding bills. The order also temporarily prohibits utilities from collecting late fees. Gov. Cooper urged telecommunication companies that provide phone, cable and internet services to follow these same rules.

“We commend the governor for his action, this is a significant step in helping North Carolinians through this crisis and protecting the public health,” said Al Ripley of the NC Justice Center. “We’ll continue to monitor utilities treatment of consumers going forward.”

On March 27, more than a dozen organizations including Appalachian Voices asked the Tennessee Valley Public Power Association to suspend service disconnections and waive late fees. TVPPA is the nonprofit organization that represents electric cooperatives and municipal utilities serving more than 9 million people in the Southeast.

“With TVA’s support and federal funding likely, TVPPA members have every reason to act now to suspend disconnections and late fees and reinstate power for those who have recently been disconnected,” reads the letter. “Electricity is not a luxury, it is a necessity to be safe and secure in one’s home — especially during a global health crisis. Suspending disconnections and late fees is the right thing to do. It is also in the tradition of public power to do the right thing for the communities they serve.”

Some communities like those served by Powell Valley Electric Cooperative in Tennessee and Virginia have taken matters into their own hands.

On March 27, member-owner advocacy group PVEC Member Voices started a petition and sent a letter to PVEC management and board members requesting a suspension of service disconnections and for late fees to be waived. Later that day, PVEC CEO Randall Meyers announced that the electric co-op would do exactly that. This is the kind of action and quick response that needs to take place in this time of crisis.

Below is a list of how Central and Southern Appalachian states have responded as of Monday, March 30.

Many towns and cooperatives are changing their policies. Call your local utility to find out how they are addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Do you have information about an Appalachian utility that is setting a great example or has failed to take action related to the COVID-19 pandemic? Let us know at voice@appvoices.org.

Georgia

  • Has Georgia temporarily suspended service interruptions? No.
  • Has Georgia waived late fees? No.

No action has been taken by the state as of April 1. View a list of utility providers in Georgia that have voluntarily suspended disconnections.

Kentucky

  • Has Kentucky suspended service disconnections? Yes, but only for regulated utilities.
  • Has Kentucky waived late fees? Yes, but only for regulated utilities.

On March 16, the Kentucky Public Service Commission ordered all utilities under its jurisdiction to suspend service disconnections due to non-payment for 30 days and to waive the assessment of late fees. The PSC stated that it “expects utilities to establish lenient and flexible payment plans for any unpaid balances.”

This order does not include municipal utilities, which are generally regulated by municipalities, or the five electric cooperatives that are served by the Tennessee Valley Authority (Gibson EMC, Pennyrite RECC, Tri-County REMC, Warren RECC, and West Kentucky RECC).

Maryland

  • Has Maryland suspended service disconnections? Yes, for residential customers.
  • Has Maryland waived late fees? Yes, for residential customers.

On March 16, Maryland Gov. Lawrence Hogan issued an executive order that prohibits all electric, gas, sewage, telegraph, telephone, water, cable, and internet utilities within the state from disconnecting residential service and from collecting late fees until at least May 1.

North Carolina

  • Has North Carolina suspended service disconnections? Yes, for all electric, gas, water and wastewater utilities.
  • Has North Carolina waived late fees? Yes, for all electric, gas, water and wastewater utilities.

On March 31, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order directing all electric, gas, water and wastewater utilities in the state to immediately suspend service disconnections for at least 60 days. The order also prohibits utilities from collecting late fees and gives residential customers at least six months to pay outstanding bills. Gov. Cooper urged telecommunication companies that provide phone, cable and internet services to follow these same rules.

Information on specific North Carolina utilities can be viewed here.

Ohio

  • Has Ohio suspended service disconnections? Yes, but only for regulated utilities.
  • Has Ohio waived late fees? No.

On March 12, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio ordered all electric, natural gas, telephone, water and wastewater utilities under its jurisdiction to suspend service disconnections and recommended that unregulated utilities do the same. The regulatory body had not made any mention of suspending late fees for the duration of the crisis as of March 30.

This order does not include municipal utilities or electric cooperatives.

Pennsylvania

  • Has Pennsylvania suspended service disconnections? Yes, but only for regulated utilities.
  • Has Pennsylvania waived late fees? No.

On March 13, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission suspended service disconnections for all electric, gas, water, wastewater, telecommunication and steam utilities under its jurisdiction for the duration of the state of emergency. The PUC has not taken the step of suspending late fees as of March 30.

This order does not include municipal utilities or electric cooperatives.

South Carolina

  • Has South Carolina suspended service disconnections? Yes, but only for regulated utilities.
  • Has South Carolina waived late fees? Yes, but only for regulated utilities.

On March 18, the South Carolina Public Service Commission ordered all regulated electric, gas, telecommunications, water and wastewater utilities in the state to suspend service disconnections and to waive late fees incurred for the duration of the state of emergency.

This order does not include municipal utilities or electric cooperatives.

Tennessee

  • Has Tennessee suspended service interruptions? No.
  • Has Tennessee waived late fees? No.

Although the Tennessee Public Utility Commission asked the regulated utilities under its jurisdiction to voluntarily suspend service disconnections on March 23, the regulatory body had not taken the step of ordering utilities to do so as of March 30. The TPUC site provides more information on how the regulatory body and utilities in the state have responded.

Additionally, the Tennessee Valley Authority gave local power companies that buy power from the federally owned utility the authority to suspend service disconnections. TVA also announced that they will defer a portion of each utility’s wholesale power payments for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.

For information on how Tennessee electric cooperatives have responded, see here.

Virginia

  • Has Virginia suspended service disconnections? Yes, but only for regulated utilities.
  • Has Virginia waived late fees? No.

On March 16, the Virginia State Corporation Commission issued an order prohibiting more than 60 regulated utilities from terminating electric, gas, water and sewer service for 60 days. This came a few days after Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring petitioned the SCC to take action.

This order includes all electric cooperatives in the state, but it does not include municipal electric utilities. No mention of waiving late fees was made in the March 16 order. In mid-March, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) urged the SCC to temporarily suspend late payment charges by public utilities.

West Virginia

  • Has West Virginia temporarily suspended service interruptions? Yes, but only for regulated utilities.
  • Has West Virginia waived late fees? No.

On March 13, the Public Service Commission of West Virginia emailed all public electric, gas, telephone, water and wastewater utilities requesting a suspension of service disconnections. All regulated utilities in the state have since taken this step, according to a March 24 press release. The PUC has not waived late fees as of March 30.

This order does not include municipal utilities or electric cooperatives.

CORRECTION: April 1, 2020
The original version of this post incorrectly stated that the Virginia State Corporation Commission’s March 16 order to suspend service disconnections did not include electric cooperatives. The order covers all 13 electric cooperatives in the state in addition to Virginia’s three investor-owned electric utilities. Additionally, this post incorrectly stated that the SCC had waived late fees incurred during the Covid-19 crisis. As of April 1, no mention had been made of waiving late fees. This post also incorrectly stated that Kentucky’s electric cooperatives were covered in the Kentucky Public Service Commission’s March 16 order. All but five Kentucky electric cooperatives were covered by the order.

Editor’s Note: This post was updated on April 2, 2020, to clarify that Maryland’s order to suspend service disconnections and waive late fees applies to residential customers only.

Editor’s Note: This post was updated on March 31, 2020, to highlight N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order directing all utilities in the state to suspend service disconnections and prohibit the collection of late fees.

Born in Arizona and raised in Tennessee, Kevin’s love of the mountains drove him to move even further east to Boone, N.C., where he serves as The Appalachian Voice's Associate Editor and a communications associate for the organization.


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