Organizers Push For Stronger COVID-19 Utility Shut-off Protections As Winter Nears

Originally published in The Intercept on October 22, 2020.
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IN AUGUST, AT the same time that Illinois environmental activist Georgia de la Garza was sick with the coronavirus, her water was shut off for nonpayment. “I had been sick for several weeks and that bill was stacked up with the mail,” she recalled. “In the height of my Covid, like 102.6 fever, I was by myself, feeling delirious, [and] I went to get cold water from my shower, and my water was shut off.” Mortified, de la Garza, who lives in the southern Illinois town of Carbondale, begged her city’s water company to take her credit card number over the phone, but they said she’d have to pay on their website. She spent the next few hours unsuccessfully trying to pay online, and eventually managed to get her water turned back on by reaching out to a friend who works on her county’s board.

The Illinois Commerce Commission had announced in March an emergency moratorium on all utility shut-offs to protect customers during the public health crisis, but the patience of utility companies was wearing thin, even as the state unemployment rate hit 11.5 percent, up from 4.2 percent a year earlier.

After this experience, de la Garza joined an organizing effort led by Urbana resident Allan Axelrod, who had his own scare with a potential gas and electric shut-off in July. He had received a letter from his utility company saying that service disconnections would be resuming within 30 days of Illinois entering “Phase 4” of reopening, or September 1, whichever came sooner. When Axelrod tweeted out his letter, his utility provider Ameren promptly replied that they were planning to disconnect service due to nonpayment by August 11.

Axelrod, who had fallen behind on payments because he was trying to catch up on his credit card debt, managed to pay off his utility bill but knew others wouldn’t be able to so easily and was alarmed at how quickly companies were moving. He started reaching out to other activists, and together they launched a grassroots effort to pressure Illinois’s Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker to impose a mandatory utility shut-off during the pandemic, as at least 17 other states and D.C. had done. 

The Illinois activists, organizing under the banner of #NoAmerenShutoffs, have been calling the governor’s offices in Springfield and Chicago en masse, showing up to his press conferences, speaking out at Illinois Commerce Commission public meetings, pressuring local city councils to pass resolutions, and raising awareness on social media. They say their pressure has yielded some success — namely Illinois’s utility shut-off moratorium has been extended until March 2021 — but unlike in some other states, it’s not a mandatory ban. “The governor has politely asked those multi-billion dollar corporations to not shut people’s water off but he has the power as the governor to issue a legally-binding moratorium,” said Emiliano Vera, a coalition member who disrupted a press conference Pritzker gave last month. State filings show that at least 16,165 Illinois households were disconnected in September alone, with the majority of shut-offs from Ameren and Commonwealth Edison.

Early on in the pandemic, as millions of people lost their jobs and became unable to pay their bills, some state and local governments began offering relief in the form of moratoriums on evictions and utility shut-offs. But it didn’t last long. According to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, 33 states have either let their Covid-19 utility moratoriums expire or never passed them at all, and seven states, with a combined 20.5 million people, have moratoriums that are set to expire in early November. Already more than 205 million people across the U.S. are at risk of having their utilities shut off, according to NEADA. 

“What we’re seeing anecdotally is a real increase in utility debt,” said John Howat, senior energy analyst at the National Consumer Law Center. Howat said that utility shut-offs amount to de-housing people without it being counted as an eviction. “It’s a pernicious way to harm people,” he said. “It’s one of the most subtle and least obvious threats that poses the most immediate risk to people’s pandemic safety.”

While utilities are largely a local matter, some federal lawmakers have taken up the issue too. A national ban on utility shut-offs was included in both versions of the House Democrats’ HEROES Act, which passed in May and October. In the Senate, Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris introduced companion legislation, but it has not been voted on. More than 830 organizations have urged Congress to act. 

Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who is the vice chair of the House Subcommittee on Environment, in particular has been outspoken on the issue. Most recently, on October 5, she, along with subcommittee chair Rep. Harley Rouda, sent a letter to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield urging him to use his authority under section 361 of the Public Health Services Act to issue a nationwide moratorium on drinking water shut-offs, citing the CDC’s issuance of an eviction moratorium in September. “Just as CDC acted to ensure that Americans are protected from evictions, access to water in each person’s home is also essential to preventing the spread of the coronavirus,” they wrote. The representatives quoted Redfield’s own words back to him on the importance of hand-washing to contain Covid-19.

“Without water you can’t wash your hands after changing a dirty diaper,” said Mary Grant, the Public Water for All campaign director at Food & Water Watch. “This is a public health crisis. It’s about protecting people, their families, and their communities.”

PRITZKER, THE ILLINOIS governor, has used his executive power to prevent pandemic evictions, and has faced heat to do the same with regard to utilities. On September 21, when asked at a press conference about utility shut-offs, Pritzker defended his administration’s approach, and said while they will continue to talk with companies, “I do want to also make sure people know that there is a limit to what the kinds of things that we can order businesses to do” and cited the need to “balance interests.” Activists started chanting at Pritzker to use his executive power to prevent the shut-offs.

An attorney at the National Consumer Law Center has filed a petition with the Illinois Commerce Commission, a quasi-judicial body which has three Democratic appointees and two Republican appointees, calling on the body to extend the shut-off moratorium. The activists have also tried to apply pressure on the ICC, and Axelrod says ICC’s members have listened to their concerns and pressured companies to avoid disconnections. ICC spokesperson Victoria Crawford said while they can’t comment on a mandatory moratorium because it’s an open petition issue on their docket, the Commission “has worked vigorously to protect all residential and small business consumers from losing access to utility service.” Pritzker’s office did not return a request for comment.

Similar actions have taken place in New Jersey, where activists achieved a major victory last week when the state’s Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order extending a mandatory moratorium through March 15, 2021. The order applies to all residential gas, electric, and water utilities, both public and private, and bars utilities from charging late fees or fees to reconnect services. 

Matt Smith, the New Jersey state director for Food & Water Action, said the momentum in their state was bolstered by the broader national social justice movement. “There’s been a sea change in what’s seen as possible,” he told The Intercept, crediting Murphy for “stepping up and showing leadership.”

Renee Koubiadis, the executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, said it took months of organizing to finally get this issue at the top of leaders’ agenda. “From the start of the pandemic we felt like we weren’t getting a good response from leadership on utilities, that it was getting pushed to the backburner,” she said. According to data from New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities, more than 440,000 residential electric and gas accounts were at least 90 days past due in August, an increase of 41 percent from 2019. The average overdue New Jersey utility balance was $600.

The rising costs of utilities and associated debt have taken on a new level of urgency in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, as people have been asked to stay home, and millions of Americans are now working and attending school from their residences. 

“In this country, without a basic level of electricity and heating service, your home is inhabitable,” said Howat. “And you’re not able to participate effectively in society at all.” Without electricity, households lack light, refrigeration, and are unable to maintain healthy indoor temperatures. In the time of Covid-19, utility shut-offs can prevent children from participating in virtual learning, make it difficult for adults to find jobs, and make it even harder to keep hands clean and take showers.

ONE CHALLENGE FOR understanding the scale of the utility shut-off crisis during the pandemic is a lack of clear data. Most states do not require electric or gas providers to report data on how customers are accessing or retaining services, though some states, like Ohio, California, and Pennsylvania, have better requirements than others. Utility companies have historically fought efforts by advocates, regulators, and policymakers to report comprehensive data, aware of the public relations nightmare that could follow.

Michael Thomas, a former journalist and founder of an energy efficiency startup Carbon Switch, leaned on his old reporting skills to compile as much information as he could from state websites on expiring utility moratoriums and what the impact might be.

“There were a lot of stories about the states where moratoriums were expiring but most lacked context of how many people would be at risk,” he said. His first report, published in August, found 34.5 million households would lose shut-off protections in the next month, leaving 9.5 million unemployed people at risk by October 1. In October he published a second report, finding that four states did let their moratoriums expire in September, affecting 16 million households, with 2.3 million of those households below the poverty line before the pandemic started. Another 2 million people in those states are unemployed.

Thomas said finding the data was “a complete mess because it’s so archaic in how it’s all stored and presented” on public utility commission websites. Civil rights groups like the NAACP have long called for actual federal guidelines on clearly reporting utility data, but for the most part, the information remains chaotic and hard to access. And while Thomas’s research helped illuminate who in a state is energy-burdened, the actual number of people who have had their utilities shut off is unknown as most companies don’t have to report it.

For now advocates are continuing to organize, hoping more governors flex their executive power to help struggling residents. “We estimate that by the election there will only be five states that have a comprehensive water moratorium,” said Grant of Food & Water Watch, referring to California, New York, Vermont, Washington and New Jersey. “We’re already seeing thousands of shut-offs happen across the country, particularly in the South and Midwest.”

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