The mild, 50-degree weather earlier this week was a harbinger of sunnier times ahead. Meteorological spring arrives Monday, and soon warmer temperatures will follow, allowing us to turn down the thermostat and open a few windows.
But for many Americans, the arrival of spring brings a new fear -- the ending of pandemic-inspired moratoriums on utility shutoffs. As the COVID-19 crisis deepened last year and more people lost their jobs, 34 states -- including Massachusetts -- barred utilities from shutting off service for late or unpaid bills.
Now, as spring draws near, many of those moratoriums are set to expire, and there are few plans in place to help residents and businesses out of what one analyst called “crisis-level.”
The Boston-based National Consumer Law Center laid bare the depth of the problem earlier this week in a report that found the number of residential, commercial and industrial customers behind more than 90 days on their utility bills more than doubled from November 2019 to November 2020. Their collective debt now surpasses $735 million in Massachusetts alone. Meanwhile, home energy usage has risen as residents have heeded officials’ pleas to stay at home to stem the spread of COVID-19.
“These are people who were previously able to pay their bills, but due to job losses and other factors during the pandemic are no longer able to make payments,” Charlie Harak, a senior attorney at the law center and co-author of the report told Statehouse reporter Christian Wade. “They’ve fallen into a debt hole and can’t get out.”
According to the report, the average residential customer is $214 in arrears. That’s on top of all other debt and late payments. And the report points out that expected post-moratorium shutoffs “will continue to hit Black and Hispanic customers particularly hard, as the limited data on shutoffs by race and ethnicity already shows.”
The report offered several suggestions for averting disaster. Massachusetts officials should seriously consider extending the shutoff moratorium past April; the pandemic will hopefully be on the ebb by then, but its economic impact will linger long after. The state should also continue to offer programs that let consumers pay off their debt over 12 to 18 months, instead of the traditional four.
And on the federal level, any COVID-19 stimulus bill must include a substantial increase in funding for energy assistance programs, with the aim of eliminating most or all of customers’ utility debt.
It’s incumbent on state and federal lawmakers to put such straightforward solutions into action.