The emergency proclamation preventing shut-off of water, electricity or natural gas services is slated to end Sept. 30. It is among the many emergency measures enacted by Gov. Jay Inslee in the wake of COVID-19.
State leaders and utility operators estimate more than 500,000 Washingtonians have overdue bills that could result in their services being shut off. They urge customers to contact their utilities as soon as possible and make a plan to keep their services on.
“This moratorium has provided hundreds of thousands of Washington families much-needed peace of mind during the pandemic, and now utility companies are eager and ready to help their customers make a plan that keeps their services on,” Inslee said. “I urge people make that call as soon as they can. That call can give a family one less thing to worry about as fall and winter approaches.”
“When the pandemic first hit, we committed that no customer should go without lights, heat or hot water,” said Puget Sound Energy President and CEO Mary Kipp. “We stand by that as the pandemic continues to impact customers more than a year later with a level of assistance that is unprecedented and which can make a significant difference for our customers.”
“The state’s not-for-profit, community-owned utilities are committed to working with our customers facing arrearages due to the impact of COVID,” said Washington PUD Association Executive Director George Caan. “Our efforts continue to focus on making contact with customers, connecting them with assistance and working with our customers to establish a pathway to recovery.”
Washington’s private investor-owned energy utilities – which cover about half the state’s customers – have more than 280,000 customers with overdue bills. They’ve provided more than $28.5 million in assistance funds during the pandemic. Almost $20 million of that funding was through COVID-19 assistance programs. Washington’s consumer-owned utilities – which serve nearly 60% of Washington households – initiated a wide range of measures to keep customers connected to essential services. These include suspending disconnections and late fees, delaying scheduled rate increases, setting up payment plans for customers, instituting new payment relief programs and expanding eligibility criteria for existing programs, holding fundraisers to support utility assistance programs, and applying deposits to existing bills. In addition, consumer-owned utilities connected customers to federal aid and, in some cases, partnered with county and city governments to direct a portion of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to support utility bill assistance.
Customer assistance options will differ across utility providers. Options that customers can ask about include:
Payment plans. Most utilities are able to set up payment plans over several months for customers to pay past-due balances.
Financial assistance. Some utilities are able to offset a portion of a customer’s past-due balance and reduce the amount owed.
Federal assistance. Low-income households might qualify for federal energy and water assistance programs. These programs are called LIHEAP (low-income heating and energy assistance program) and LIHWAP (low-income household water assistance program). Utilities can advise customers on how to contact local organizations that are managing applications for these programs on behalf of the Department of Commerce.
Private, investor-owned water and energy utilities regulated by the Utilities and Transportation Commission cannot charge late fees or deposits until April 2022 and must offer long-term payment plan options up to 18 months. They must also notify the commission before disconnecting any customers when the moratorium ends, so commission staff can ensure customers were properly notified about the disconnection and made aware of assistance options.
Public, community-owned utilities are governed by locally elected officials. Community-owned, not-for-profit utilities’ policies will vary according to local needs.
Community-owned energy and water utilities are encouraged to:
Continue to make good faith efforts to reach customers with past-due accounts, including partnering with community organizations, and provide information about various assistance options.
Help customers identify utility, local, state and federal financial assistance programs for which they may be eligible.
Offer extended payment plans of 12 months or longer.
Waive disconnection, reconnection, site visit and late fees accrued during the disconnection moratorium, if customers sign up for payment assistance.
Refrain from reporting overdue accounts to credit bureaus or placing liens on customers with overdue accounts for at least 180 days.
“I am grateful that utilities across the state are stepping up and working to assist their customers,” said Dave Danner, chair of the UTC. “These are unprecedented times and this calls for taking unprecedented steps as we work towards recovery.”
For more information, customers can visit commerce.wa.gov/utility-assistance. Information is available in 36 languages.