More than a decade ago, when Ms. Charles needed some help catching up on her utility bills and maintaining service for her home, she was able to receive a payment agreement from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC). But, like many low-income Pennsylvanians today, she recently learned the hard way that opportunities like that are no longer available, thanks to a 2004 Pennsylvania statute that favored utility company collections at the expense of essential consumer protections.
Working for the Philadelphia School District, Ms. Charles was able to manage her utility bills and other living expenses. Her hardship began in late 2011 when she was diagnosed with cancer and shortly thereafter was laid off. Out of work, and recovering from surgery, she started to fall behind on her Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW) bills. As her unemployment compensation ran out, she faced the loss of essential gas heat service. Her doctor submitted medical certificates to PGW, explaining that the loss of heating would aggravate her condition. But when her medical certifications ran out three months later, PGW shut off her gas. She called the Pennsylvania PUC but they turned her away. Why? Certain provisions in Chapter 14 of the Public Utility Code limit payment agreements and impose harsh reconnection fees that are simply unrealistic in times of hardship.
A loss of utility service can be disastrous for low-income customers. There are the immediate health and safety risks, and city agencies may also have no choice but to break a family apart in order to ensure that children are safe. In the case of Ms. Charles, she learned that a loss of service can also result in eviction. Her landlord told her she would be evicted if she didn’t pay off her $2800 utility balance to protect the property from a municipal lien—a PGW collection tool enhanced by Chapter 14—and restore service as well.
Ms. Charles reached out to friends and family for help and they came through so she could get her account current. Shortly after her 65th birthday, with winter looming, and her income boosted by social security retirement benefits, Ms. Charles’ PGW service was finally restored. She was luckier than many Philadelphians under similar circumstances, who—with no one to turn to—are cast out of their homes.
When Pennsylvania’s General Assembly added Chapter 14 to the Public Utility Code in 2004, it did so with the recognition that the law was an experiment. That’s why it included a ten-year sunset provision in the hopes that lawmakers wouldn’t ignore whatever effect the law ended up having on consumers. Turns out that sunset was a very good idea. As detailed in our recent report, Out in the Cold, Chapter 14 is a horribly misaligned law which includes as its stated purpose “eliminating opportunities for customers capable of paying to avoid timely payment of utility bills.” But instead, Chapter 14 has resulted in the loss of essential utility service for low-income customers who are incapable of always paying their bills in full and on time. It has led to record numbers of utility shut offs and record numbers of customers entering the harsh winter without utility service.
It should come as little surprise that Chapter 14 has had such damaging consequences. It was originally enacted without public hearings at the urging of utility company lobbyists who claimed widespread payment abuse by customers. A January 2006 assessment by Joseph Rhodes, Jr., a former PUC Commissioner and member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, found that the lobbyists’ claims had been hollow and it urged repeal. Advocates called for restoring consumer protections for low-income customers. Yet despite the clear need for reform, the General Assembly recently reenacted Chapter 14 with minimal changes, ensuring that low-income Pennsylvania utility customers will continue to be placed at risk.
Without access to payment arrangements, and reasonable restoration terms, low-income Pennsylvanians end up making impossible choices between medicine and food as they try to manage their utility bills; or they live without heat while they wait for charitable assistance or help filing for bankruptcy, and the utility service protections that come with it.
To protect the health and safety of all Pennsylvanians—and to ensure that people like Ms. Charles have options when they are facing dire circumstances—utility policy reform must become a central mission of lawmakers.