Ferguson’s proposal requires companies to adopt fairer utility debt collection practices
OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson issued a proposal that calls on the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) to, among other protections, ban utility late fees and utility service disconnections until at least April 30, 2021. These protections ensure vulnerable Washingtonians don’t lose the services they need to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic and the related economic crisis.
Ferguson issued the proposal to the UTC in partnership with the Sierra Club, NW Energy Coalition, The Energy Project, Front and Centered and Puget Sound Sage. The UTC is currently considering how private energy utilities should be allowed to collect past-due utility bills during the COVID-19 pandemic. The commission will make its final decision after a public meeting on Oct. 6. The public is welcome to attend this meeting remotely and participate by phone or Skype. Learn more about the meeting, including how to attend, at the UTC’s website.
“Washingtonians are hurting,” Ferguson said. “This is not the time to put individuals at risk of losing critical services they need, like heat and electricity.”
“The economic impacts of this pandemic are deep and far-reaching, and families across the state are balancing how to pay for food, housing, childcare, medication, and utility bills,” said Amy Wheeless, Senior Policy Associate for NW Energy Coalition. “The UTC can protect customers during this time by extending the prohibition on utility disconnections while also proactively directing utilities to develop comprehensive programs to help customers pay and manage their utility bills.”
"Right now, private, investor-owned utilities like Puget Sound Energy are refusing to pay their fair share,” said Katrina Peterson, Climate Justice Program Manager at Puget Sound Sage. “They want to put 100 percent of the costs of the pandemic on ratepayers, even though they can still make a profit. The UTC has authorized PSE shareholders a 9.4 percent return on equity and their executives are in Washington's top 1 percent. Where is the justice in energy executives and shareholders making millions while working people across Washington state don't know if they'll have a roof over their heads tomorrow? Washington state employees are taking a 20 percent pay cut. Shouldn't PSE's executives and shareholders take a 20 percent pay cut too?"
"Now more than ever families who are struggling need reliable energy to keep working and learning, as well as stay healthy at home during this historic pandemic,” said Deric Gruen, Co-Executive Director of Front and Centered, a statewide coalition of groups based in communities of color. “Now is not the time to unplug families, but rather to keep them connected to schools, jobs and information."
"We are in unprecedented times where families are struggling to pay for basics like food, rent, medicine and utilities,” said Doug Howell, Senior Campaign Representative for the Sierra Club. “Yet our monopoly utilities still make huge profits and top executives make millions. Now is the time for shared sacrifice. There are late fees, penalties and deposits that disproportionately hurt low-income and communities of color that need to permanently go away. The Utilities and Transportation Commission needs to bring balance into the system."
Details of the proposal
On April 17, 2020, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a moratorium prohibiting utility companies from disconnecting consumers’ utility services and imposing late fees. It is set to expire on Oct. 15, putting thousands of Washingtonians at risk of losing access to essential utility services.
Ferguson’s proposal calls on the UTC to extend the utility shut-off moratorium until at least April 30, 2021 — and only lift the moratorium once specific conditions are met. For example, utilities should have assistance programs in place for low-income consumers, including repayment plans on past-due bills.
Under Ferguson’s proposal, customers will remain responsible for paying their utility bills, but utility service providers cannot shut off service or charge late fees for customers who cannot pay.
In addition to protecting consumers from losing essential utility services, Ferguson is also calling on the UTC to put more protections in place, including:
- Clear communication to consumers that they will not be disconnected or charged late fees.
- A prohibition on late fees and deposits.
- A waiver of disconnection and reconnection fees once the moratorium is lifted.
- Assistance to consumers who have fallen behind on utility bills, including debt forgiveness, depending on income, and 24-month payment plans.
- Reconnecting disconnected customers. Some customers were disconnected between Jan. 1, 2020 and April 17, 2020, before the governor’s proclamation prohibited disconnections. These customers must be reconnected immediately and offered bill assistance.
- Rules requiring utilities to better track the number of low-income customers they serve, including quarterly reports to the UTC.
- The UTC should also consider whether disconnection and reconnection fees should be permanently discontinued.
These rules would apply to investor-owned electric and natural gas companies regulated by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, including Puget Sound Energy, Avista Corp., PacifiCorp (also known as Pacific Power & Light Co.), Cascade Natural Gas Co. and Northwest Natural Gas Co. These companies combined cover about 1.3 million natural gas customers and 1.5 million electric customers. Washingtonians who are customers of another utility service provider, such as a public utility district, are protected by the governor’s proclamation.
Utilities are essential to public health and safety
Connection to essential utilities is critical for daily life — especially so during the COVID-19 pandemic. Electricity and natural gas are necessary to keep homes safe and habitable during the coming winter months, which in turn allows people to remain in their homes and avoid having to move to more crowded living situations.
Due to the pandemic, Washingtonians are spending more time at home, driving up their utility usage and increasing their monthly bills. In the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis driven by the pandemic, more Washington families are behind on their utility bills in a time when these services are especially critical. Ferguson’s proposal to the UTC is designed to protect consumers from losing their essential utility services when they need them the most, allowing them to continue with their daily lives.
Although not being addressed in this particular UTC proceeding, the Attorney General’s Office is advocating for similar protections for customers of water and telecommunication companies. These services are also critical during the pandemic. Access to water is necessary for sanitation, including following guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Access to reliable internet and phone services is necessary for remote work, e-commerce, remote schooling and access to unemployment benefits — all of which have seen record levels of demand during the pandemic.
The Attorney General’s Office Public Counsel Unit, led by Assistant Attorney General Lisa W. Gafken, led the effort to file the proposal along with several advocacy organizations, including the Sierra Club, The Energy Project, NW Energy Coalition, Front and Centered and Puget Sound Sage.
The Public Counsel Unit represents customers of state-regulated, investor-owned utility companies in matters before the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, state courts, and the legislature. The unit’s guiding mission is to ensure that regulated utilities charge fair and reasonable rates and provide safe and reliable service. Learn more about the Public Council Unit here.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Dan Jackson, Acting Communications Director, (360) 753-2716; email@example.com
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