Utilities should be one of the most accommodating debts on your list of monthly bills because, if nothing else, it’s easy to reduce your bill by turning off your appliances.
But if there is a jar to the economy – like the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020 – keeping the lights on can become a real struggle, especially if your wallet has been hit. The coronavirus caused a record 33.5 million workers to head for the unemployment line in a six-week period.
Fortunately for those millions, there are plenty of agencies and organizations that provide assistance paying utility bills. Unfortunately, being a day late and more than a few dollars short is an all too common experience.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration said in a 2018 release that seven million households have to decide every month between food, medicine or paying the utility bill.
The average electric bill in 2018 in the U.S. was $117.65 per month. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, energy costs consume between 5% and 22% of a family’s monthly budget.
You can try all sorts of tips and tricks to lower that number, but even a relatively low bill can be a heavy burden for some families. Low-income families pay an average of 9.92% and as much as 22% of their income on electricity alone. Compare that to a national average of 7.2%.
This is often referred to as a household’s “energy burden.”
Low-income households — meaning those earning less than 80% of the area median income — in many Southeast states face energy burdens of 10% or higher. In five states with the highest low-income energy burden — Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas — low-income households use 36% more electricity than the low-income national average.
Typically, an electric bill is due 21 days after the meter is read. If it isn’t paid by the due date, you should receive a late notice that gives you five business days to make the payment. Afterwards, the utility company can disconnect your service with a few exceptions that vary from state to state.
Emergency Payment Assistance
It’s important to try to stay ahead of the game when you’re behind on payments. Use the 21 days to reach out to organizations and apply for assistance. If you come up to the five-day window, you’ll need to look for emergency payment assistance.
Do whatever you can to keep the power on. Once it’s turned off, the utility company will charge reconnection fees and could require a deposit to turn it back on.
Help paying utility bills can come from three different sectors:
- Government assistance
- Charity aid
- Utility company programs
A good first step is to check out databases of agencies that assist with utility payments.
Utility Bill Assistance During COVID-19
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act helps people learn how they can get government help to pay phone bills, medical bills, electric bills and other expenses.
A big part of the assistance is through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, which we’ll detail soon.
Many of the major players in the industry – Duke, PG&E, Consolidated Edison and many more – are halting disconnections and waiving late fees for customers struggling with the impact of COVID-19.
In fact, 26 states and the District of Columbia have ordered utility companies to suspend disconnections. A few others are suspending disconnections only for low-income and senior customers or are encouraging voluntary action only by utilities.
Information on which companies are granting concessions is changing weekly, so check with your state or utility for more information.
One other resource worth investigating is DoNotPay.com, which bills itself as a “robot lawyer” and tries to get bill extensions for those affected by coronavirus. DoNotPay sends your utility company a “polite” letter requesting an extension. If the extension is denied, it follows up with a second letter with relevant local and state laws to try and convince the company they’re better off granting an extension.
Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program
If this has become a reoccurring issue, you need to look into the government agency LIHEAP. The program is meant to help low-income households that pay a high proportion of their income for home energy. The Office of Community Services, Division of Energy Assistance granted $3.32 billion in funding for LIHEAP in 2020.
LIHEAP can help pay heating or cooling bills, and help pay for low-cost home improvements such as weatherization to lower utility bills. On average, about 20% of households that are qualified for LIHEAP receive benefits.
How to Qualify for Energy Assistance
Eligibility for this program varies by state, but generally it starts at the $18,735 income level for a one-person household (150% of the federal poverty line). Then add $6,630 per person in the household, so a family of four would have to earn less than $38,625 (6,630 x 3 + 18,735 = 38,625) to qualify. You could be automatically eligible If you are currently enrolled in SNAP, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs.
States also have their own forms of utility assistance. Ohio, Colorado, New Jersey, Nevada, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Maine all have various forms of Percentage of Income Payment Plans (PIPP).
The idea is that a customer pays a fixed percentage of their income to their gas or electric bill, and if they make full and on-time payments, the remaining balance is forgiven at the end of each month.
Your local LIHEAP office should have more information on state-run programs like PIPP.
Enrolling in LIHEAP will help in the long term, but if you’re in danger of having your lights cut off, you need help right away. Local churches and social service agencies can provide the short-term funds to keep your utilities running.
When you’re unable to pay your bills, the last thing you want to do is put them on a credit card. The small debt will get compounded and make the situation worse. If debt got you here in the first place, you should look into credit consolidation help from a nonprofit agency as a way out. In the meantime, take advantage of the aid that is out there.
Dialing 2-1-1 is the financial equivalent of 9-1-1 for this type of emergency. A regional operator will direct you to local organizations that can help with a number of problems including utility assistance.
These are some of the organizations you will be referred to:
- Salvation Army
- Catholic Charities
- Love Inc.
- Lutheran Social Ministry
- Vincent De Paul Society
- Jewish Federation of North America
- Urban League
There are many more, especially at local churches, which usually have specific ministries within the church that cater to financial crisis situations. Call the churches in your area and ask if they have a family assistance program that could keep your utility from being shut off.
Electricity Shut Off Laws
In addition to the orders by states for utility companies to suspend disconnections during COVID-19, some states have laws preventing utility companies from shutting off utilities under other circumstances.
These laws typically state that power can’t be disconnected during the cold winter or hot summer months. Families with children or a customer with a medical need may also have utility disconnection laws protecting them.
Utility Company Programs
The utility company itself will often work with its customers so long as you communicate your situation with them.
Many companies have payment plans designed for these problems. They might take your balance and add a small amount to future monthly bills until it’s paid off. Another option is to pay one fixed rate determined by your average utility bill the last 12 months. This should help you budget more efficiently and avoid an enormous bill in the hot or cold months.
Some utility companies partner with local charities and can help you find assistance. Duke Energy, for example, has an Energy Neighbor Fund that works in conjunction with local agencies in Florida.
The Dollar Energy Fund works with 31 utility companies around 12 states to provide aid in the form of grants similar to LIHEAP.
What Can You Do If Your Electricity is Shut Off
If none of the above steps work and you don’t qualify or can’t find assistance to prevent your electricity from being shut off, there are a few final steps you can try.
The Energy Crisis Intervention Program, or ECIP, helps low-income households in a crisis situation. Getting a 24-48 hour disconnect notice from a utility company would be a situation where ECIP can help. Much of this assistance is through LIHEAP.
A longer-term solution is to upgrade your home utilities so that you use less electricity. Turning back your thermostat 7-10 degrees for eight hours a day from its normal setting can save you as much as 10%, according to the Department of Energy.