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Pandemic Protections Against Utility Shut Offs End This Week

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Allyson Ruggieri
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90.5 WESA
Utility terminations for nonpayment can begin Thursday in Pennsylvania

A yearlong, pandemic-driven ban on utility shutoffs for low-income customers in Pennsylvania will end this week, putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk.

Utility terminations for nonpayment can begin Thursday, after a vote by the state’s Public Utility Commission earlier this month to lift its termination moratorium. The measure had been in place since last March, though it was modified last fall to only apply to customers below 300% of the federal poverty level. A regular, seasonal moratorium on shutoffs for low-income customers also ends Wednesday.  

Customers collectively owe about $856 million in back bills, according to PUC spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen.

That’s roughly a 44% increase in customer debt from around the same time last year, when residential customers owed about $590 million to PUC-regulated utilities, said Elizabeth Marx, executive director of the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project, which aids low-income consumers.

This year, the number of consumers facing termination is significantly higher and the amount of debt that people have to their utilities is unlike anything we've seen before,” Marx said.

There were approximately 890,000 residential utility accounts that were at risk of termination as of mid-March, according to PUC data, though that number has actually declined from October of last year, when there were more than 1.1 million accounts in that position.

Assistance for customers is available via payment plans from utility companies, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, nonprofits such as Dollar Energy Fund, and federal COVID relief funds for rental and utility assistance. There’s about $80 million in rental and utility funds available in Allegheny County.

The PUC’s orders only apply to utilities regulated by the PUC, and do not include many utilities that are run by municipal authorities or rural electric cooperatives.

For help paying your bills, learn more about available assistance through LIHEAP, Allegheny County emergency rental and utility assistance, or Dollar Energy Fund.

Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@wesa.fm

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Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at kgiammarise@wesa.fm or 412-697-2953.
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