The Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission extended protections for electric and natural gas customers struggling to pay their bills due to the ongoing economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
State regulators recently extended an order — previously set to expire on April 30 — preventing investor-owned energy utilities from disconnecting customers for nonpayment through July 31. Utilities will also continue to waive late fees and deposits through Jan. 27, 2022.
The order allows utilities to begin sending notices to customers in June, reminding them that disconnections will resume, and supplying information about payment options and customer assistance programs.
In the order, the commissioners said, “ The pandemic continues, and efforts to combat it are evolving. The commission is committed to remaining flexible when addressing the changing circumstances in these challenging times. … We remain committed to addressing equity issues that impact utility customers, and we look forward to continuing to engage with stakeholders and the public to protect Washington’s most vulnerable communities.
As of December 2020, almost 277,000 residential electric and natural gas customers across the state have past due balances totaling $79.1 million, a 65% increase from 2019. Utilities project that this debt will continue to increase in 2021.
During 2020, the five investor-owned utilities — Puget Sound Energy, PacifiCorp, Avista, Northwest Natural Gas, and Cascade Natural Gas — dispersed assistance funds to more than 91,000 low-income customers and customers who lost income due to the pandemic, an increase of 31% from 2019.
The commission also required utilities to set up new assistance programs specifically to aid customers struggling due to the pandemic. Customers who need help should reach out to their companies directly to ask about these programs and other options such as payment plans.
Customers can visit www.utc.wa.gov/CovidHelp for information about their rights, a comprehensive list of COVID-19 utility assistance programs, and information about the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), or call the commission at 1-888-333-WUTC (9882).
The UTC will hold another special meeting in May to review utility preparedness to serve low-income customers and reassess the status of the pandemic and its health and economic impacts.