FILE - PA Gladys Brown Dutrieuille 10-24-2019

Gladys Brown Dutrieuille, chairwoman of the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission

(The Center Square) – As unemployment has decreased and businesses have reopened in Pennsylvania despite the continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission decided to lift the commonwealth’s absolute moratorium on public utility service terminations effective Nov. 9.

Consumer protections for qualified eligible residents and small businesses in Pennsylvania that are struggling to afford utilities due to the pandemic, as well as related requirements for utility companies, will last through March 31.

“Moving from an absolute moratorium to a less restrictive phase, while still acknowledging that the pandemic and its economic effects have not disappeared, requires us to put in place a mix of holistic, short-term and long-term solutions to offer customers protections and ensure the payment of bills from customers that are able to pay,” Commission Chairman Gladys Brown Dutrieuille said in her motion lifting the moratorium that was put in place March 13 of this year via emergency order.

To be eligible, residents must have incomes within 300% of the Federal Poverty Income Guidelines, “apply for all available assistance programs” and make a payment arrangement with the utility company, according to a news release from the commission. Residents will not have to pay for late fees, connection or reconnection fees, or deposit fees. Struggling small businesses will be able to have payment arrangements on their utilities for up to 18 months and be protected from termination if they remain current on that arrangement.

Utility companies have to inform individuals and businesses who are at risk of having their services terminated after the moratorium ends of how they can pay overdue balances and when their utilities would otherwise be terminated. They also need to report monthly to the commission on how many residential and small businesses’ accounts are at-risk of termination, how many accounts they terminated for non-payment and the balances that are past-due from customers.

The commission will review the consumer protections in the first quarter of 2021, and stakeholders can propose revisions to the commission by Feb. 16. Dutrieuille said the utility companies’ reports, stakeholders’ comments and information will assist the commission and its staff in determining an appropriate plan at the time of the review.

The 3-1 vote of the commission took place Oct. 8. Vice chairman David Sweet dissented in a note that he read at the meeting.

“By choosing a date in the future without any sound economic or health information to guide us, we run a very real risk of ending that protection at a time when circumstances may be even worse than we have experienced up to this point,” Sweet said.

He said he also wanted additional government assistance apart from the commission to help people pay their bills.

Commissioner John Coleman Jr. voiced support for the motion, saying that the utility bills due from residents who are struggling financially are accruing, not being forgiven, and many low-income residents have had bills stopped since winter 2019.

“There are customers out there that have large and growing utility bills, and that’s a concern. That’s a significant concern,” Coleman said. “And the larger they get, the less likely it is that they’re going to be able to overcome. In my mind, that’s really a driving factor in making sure that customers are incentivized to communicate with their utilities.”

Electric, natural gas, water, wastewater, telecommunications and steam utilities in the Commission’s jurisdiction are part of this action.