With thousands of Washington households still reeling from the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, the state’s utility regulators are ordering electric and natural gas providers to keep the lights on for their customers through April.
The move comes amid a historic unemployment crisis following sweeping shutdowns of the state’s economy in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. On the week of Sept. 27, there were more than 506,000 unemployment claims.
At the same time, more people are struggling to pay their bills. Data from Puget Sound Energy (PSE), filed with the state on Sept. 30, shows that since March, there has been a year-over-year increase in the number of people who are behind on their power bills.
This June, there were more than 27,000 residential and business customers who hadn’t paid their bill. While the number has declined since then, the latest August numbers show nearly 8,000 customers hadn’t paid.
The Washington state Utility and Transportation Commission on Oct. 6 decided to extend a shutoff moratorium for investor-owned utilities that supply electricity and natural gas through April 30, 2021.
The proposal was further supported by Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
“This is not the time to put individuals at risk of losing critical services they need, like heat and electricity,” Ferguson said in a statement.
Utility providers must also work with customers to create long-term payment plans for up to 18 months for residential customers, and 12 months for small businesses. And new customer deposits will be waived until Oct. 2021.
“No one should go without heat and power because they’ve lost a job,” said UTC Chair David Danner. “With the school year under way and winter approaching, we must do what we can to help families get through these difficult times.”
The decision was applauded by community organizations, which have been pushing for extensions of several moratoriums enacted by Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this year.
Katrina Peterson, climate justice program manager for Puget Sound Sage, said they support the UTC’s decision.
“This is a really big deal,” Peterson said.
But she would like to see it go further by extending moratoriums on other utility shutoffs, and by permanently ending late fees.
Moratoriums on housing evictions and phone and water shutoffs were all extended through Oct. 15 by Inslee. It’s unclear whether the governor’s office will extend these moratoriums.
“The governor is looking at several recommendations, but no decision have been made,” a spokesperson for the governor’s office said.
The state should act to extend these moratoriums, Peterson said, as well as ensure that utility companies don’t raise rates to recover losses from the pandemic — especially at a time where many families struggling.
“People are cutting basic needs in order to pay for energy bills,” she said.
PSE spokesperson Jarrett Tomalin said the company regularly assesses its rates throughout the year. Tomalin said gas customers will pay roughly $65 a month, and electric customers will pay around $100 a month.
The company also placed an internal moratorium on shutoffs earlier the year, which was planned to reach into 2021.
The UTC will decide on final terms at its Oct. 15 meeting.