June 22, 2024


The Legal System

Report: Black, Latino Pa. residents more likely to fall behind on utility bills, face shut-offs | Friday Morning Coffee

Good Friday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

With many Pennsylvania households scrambling to keep the lights on during the pandemic, a new report reveals that the state’s Black and Latino residents are more likely to face unaffordable utility costs and fall behind on their utility bills at a much higher rate than are white households.

“Many of these same communities were hardest hit by COVID-19 in the early months of the pandemic, experiencing both health issues at a much higher rate and also being more likely to lose their jobs and income,” the joint report by Community Legal Services and the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project concludes.

The report’s release comes days before state utility regulators are set to lift a pandemic-inspired moratorium on utility shutoffs. The move by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission gives service-providers the green light to figuratively turn the lights off on nearly 1 million consumers who can’t afford to pay their bills, the two advocacy groups write.

The amount of unpaid bills has increased by 67 percent since 2019 to $1 billion in February, according to reporting by USA Today’s Pennsylvania Capital Bureau. Shutoffs had resumed for some customers last November, but existing state guidelines sheltered consumers with an income of less than 300 percent of the Federal Poverty GuidelinesUSA Today’s bureau further reported.

Experts from the two advocacy groups found, among other things, that:

  • “Low-income, Black, and Latinx Pennsylvanians are more likely to be rent-burdened and pay more money toward their utility bills than white Pennsylvanians. They are also more likely to experience utility insecurity. 
  • “Areas with higher concentrations of minority residents have much higher rates of utility arrears and disconnections, and are more likely to require assistance from a utility customer assistance program in order to afford their utility bills,” and   
  • “Communities of color were hit hardest by COVID-19, especially in the early months, suggesting that these communities will require additional targeted resources to address utility insecurity that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.” 

“These findings have important policy implications. Federal and state government’s relief through moratoria on utility shutoffs should be paired with aggressive outreach to enroll potentially eligible clients into utility assistance programs and additional financial assistance for vulnerable households,” the report’s authors wrote. “Broad financial and flexible assistance, like unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, may also be helpful as households that face utility insecurity often face other financial struggles. In addition, governments and utility companies alike must do more to ensure long-term utility affordability and security among low-income households.”

The report includes a number of recommendations for the Public Utility Commission, the General Assembly, and service providers.

The recommendations for the PUC include: 

  • “[Tracking] the equity impact of utility termination and affordability policy by collecting, maintaining, and publicly reporting data on universal service program enrollment, terminations, and arrearages at the census tract level. Granular data is critical to identifying and combatting racial inequality.
  • “[Reviewing] and [improving] language access regulations to ensure that consumers with limited English proficiency are able to access utility services and enroll in available assistance programs.
  • “[Expanding] existing arrearage management programs to serve a greater number of consumers,” and
  • [Ensuring] that all rates approved for service are affordable to the consumers served.”

The recommendations for the Legislature include:

  • “[Repealing] Chapter 14 of the Public Utility Code, and fully restoring consumers’ rights to seek equitable payment terms from the PUC based on individualized facts and circumstances.
  • “[Requiring] the PUC to oversee the creation of standardized universal service programming for water and wastewater service that will ensure low-income Pennsylvanians receive an affordable bill.
  • “[Requiring] unregulated utilities to comply with standardized billing, collections, and termination standards consistent with those required of regulated utilities.
  • “[Reforming] the competitive electric and natural gas markets to protect consumers from excessive pricing and abusive marketing practices,” and
  • “Requiring the PUC to conduct an affordability analysis prior to approving any increase in utility rates.”

In a Capital-Star op-Ed published last AugustJosie Pickens and Robert W. Ballenger, the co-director of Community Legal Services’ energy unit, said Chapter 14 of the utility code was “an unjustified and inequitable law designed to increase collections for Philadelphia Gas Works,” and called for its repeal.

“Chapter 14 instituted draconian restrictions on consumer access to payment arrangements and the commission’s dispute process, meaning that people cannot fairly receive opportunities to catch up on their bills when they fall behind, leading to more utility terminations,” Pickens and Ballenger wrote.  

The recommendations for service-providers include:

  • “[Implementing] the PUC’s 2019 policy statement regarding Customer Assistance Programs, including but not limited to reduced energy burden standards, which limit energy costs to 6 percent of household income for the state’s lowest income households.
  • “[Expanding] termination prevention outreach and assistance to families seeking to enroll in universal service programs.
  • “[Ensuring] that all critical documents are available in Spanish and other commonly spoken languages,” and
  • “[Eliminating barriers] to customer enrollment in universal service programs, including waiver of burdensome documentation requirements and reducing up-front payment requirements for grant assistance.”

“The pandemic has created significant hardships for Black and Latinx households and communities who continue to require utility service to reduce the spread of COVID-19 infection,” Pickens said in a statement.  “The looming threat of utility terminations will leave too many of these households at risk, scrambling for resources to prevent shut offs at a time when they urgently require electricity to power critical devices and hot water for basic sanitation.”

And as the state moves out of the pandemic,  “We must work together to root out structural inequities and ensure that all Pennsylvanians – regardless of race and economic status – have access to clean water, electricity, heat, and telecommunication services in their home,” Elizabeth Marx, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project, said in a statement.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

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