When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, Governor Roy Cooper issued Executive Order 124 and 142 prohibiting utility companies from disconnecting services to residential customers due to nonpayment. A moratorium on utility disconnections, ensures people facing financial hardships can continue to access vital utilities such as water and electricity in the face of a public health crisis. Unfortunately it is likely that the moratorium will be ending at midnight on July 30th. Recently, Governor Cooper indicated that the moratorium will not be extended due to the unintended financial burden it has placed on municipal utility companies. As of this writing, there is no indication that the moratorium will be extended or that any other relief mechanisms will be in place when it expires.
EO 124/142 also prohibits the collection of additional late fees, penalties or other charges for nonpayment and requires utilities to allow customers to enter six-month repayment plans for past due balances. Utility and consumer protection advocates are concerned that there will be widespread inconsistencies and violations of these requirements. Already, Robeson County has issued notices to customers stating that once the moratorium ends at midnight on July 29th, unpaid water bills “must be paid in full by July 30, 2020”, giving only a couple days notice to pay several months of bills and with no language indicating that repayment options are available. Advocates are calling on the Governor’s office and Attorney General to ensure that consumers’ rights to adequate notice and fair repayment terms are protected.
Utility companies are currently owed about $257.85 million in unpaid bills accrued since March, according to the N.C. Utilities Commission, with $1.3 million in residential bills. Recognizing that municipalities and utility companies are facing devastating financial losses without the means to recover costs, advocates are proposing several methods to either provide protections to low-income households or funding directly to utilities to cover the lost revenue. One of the proposals is to extend the shutoff moratorium only for qualifying individuals with incomes below a certain threshold, allowing utilities to begin to collect payment from those who are able. Other proposals would be to cover arrearages directly to utilities in either grant or loan form.
In order to practice proper hygiene to mitigate the risk of acquiring and spreading COVID-19, North Carolinians need access to hot, running water. Access to utilities helps individuals remain safely at home during the pandemic. For some households, the utility shutoff moratorium enabled them to meet their rental or mortgage payment obligations. With this protection removed, more households may be facing eviction or having to make difficult decisions between paying for utilities, food, healthcare, and other basic needs. Moves such as this, highlight the need for providing urgent housing and utility assistance. The basic human needs for shelter of individual North Carolinians must be addressed. Allowing utility shutoffs to start, simply shifts the hardship to individuals for whom the hardship will take the form of being unable to pay rent and forgoing housing, food, or access to heating, cooking, and sanitation.