Following legislation that requires District landlords to offer payment plans for rent to tenants facing hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic, the city council has passed a new bill to help those struggling to pay utility bills.
“Since the first emergency COVID-19 bills, I have been working to include this language to protect utility customers,” said Kenyan McDuffie, chair pro tempore and chair of the Council Committee on Business and Economic Development. “While prohibitions on shutoffs have been in place for some time and some utilities are already offering some payment plans, I am pleased that the District has now required all utility providers to provide payment plans.”
The new law requires gas, water and electric utilities to offer a payment program six months after the public health emergency.
The council’s actions mandate that protections would extend 60 days after the public health emergency for cable operators or telecommunications service providers not regulated by the DC Public Service Commission.
If utility service is currently disconnected, the provision requires reconnection of some utilities during the public health emergency. The payment plans must be for at least one year unless the customer requests a shorter time frame.
“There has never been a more critical time for utilities to help their most vulnerable customers seek relief and ultimately recover from the coronavirus crisis,” said Sydney Sonneville, who works as a senior media relations specialist. “Many utilities have enacted measures to do just that, including suspending service disconnections, reconnecting customers in the dark, waiving late payment fees, and offering flexible payment plans.”
The ability to communicate and connect with customers effectively during a crisis is at the core of public utilities’ services, Sonneville said.
The Federal Communications Commission issued a “Keep Americans Connected Pledge” asking telecommunications and broadband providers to promote Americans’ connectivity, which was affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Other utility companies can utilize available communication tools such as emails, websites, text messages to remind customers of their commitment to suspend service disconnections and to waive any late fees during this challenging time, Sonneville added.
“Utilities can also think about what program offerings exist to provide financial hardship assistance,” she said. “Beyond financial arrearage assistance through the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program that may not reach all income-eligible customers, do utilities have supplemental programs that reduce the financial burden of low-income customers trying to pay utility bills? Considering many shelter-in-place restrictions, are there ways in which utilities can enroll customers in such programs electronically or streamline that process?”
McDuffie noted that he believed the council had to act.
“The fact is that many customers who have avoided disconnection under emergency protections would have been facing an unmanageable lump sum payment at the end of the public health emergency,” McDuffie said.