Merkley Introduces Legislation to Ensure No American Loses Power, Heat, Water or Internet Service Due To a Missed Payment During Pandemic

Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley is introducing the Maintaining Access to Essential Services Act of 2021—legislation that would create a new program to protect all Americans’ access to power, heat, water and internet service during the coronavirus crisis and ensure that these critical home utilities are not cut off.

While temporary shut-off moratoria kept utilities connected for most, after more than a year of the pandemic, millions of families are struggling with huge utility arrearages for bills they were unable to pay due to lost incomes. This is especially true for low-income families, who are already more likely to pay higher rates for basic utilities like water and heat, and are especially at risk of losing essential utility services in their homes.

“Water, power, heat, and internet are basic human needs—and they are especially necessary as families look to rebuild from the pandemic,” said Merkley.  “The fact that so many families are just one missed payment away from losing access to these utilities is a public emergency that must immediately be met with a national plan to make sure the faucets keep working, lights stay on, and students and workers can log on to school or work.”

Disconnections further worsen inequalities that have been intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic. States are already struggling to distribute limited doses of vaccines equitably. If someone doesn’t have access to the internet because they cannot afford their bills, it makes it much harder for them to sign up for their shot or get more information about vaccine eligibility and make an appointment.

Under Merkley’s bill, $10 billion in low-interest loans would be made available to electric utilities. An additional $10 billion in loans would be made available to water and wastewater providers, and another $10 billion would be allocated for low-interest loans for broadband providers. Two years after the end of the pandemic, the loans become forgivable up to the amount of outstanding arrearages that the utility has for the period of the emergency—at a level of 100 percent of debt for public water and electric utilities and for small internet providers, and at 50 percent of debt for private electric and water providers and large internet providers.

The legislation requires that the debt incurred by a customer during the pandemic must be discharged. If a utility disconnects customers or charges fees for debts incurred during the pandemic, the loans would be immediately recoverable.

“This bill is vital to address the reality that millions of families have been plunged into poverty because of COVID. Mounting utility debt digs that hole deeper and threatens their access to basic human rights of power, water, and broadband access,” said Jean Su, energy justice director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Any notion of building back better must include this bill which stops the immediate bleeding of utility shutoffs and greater infrastructure investment in community and rooftop solar solutions to stop the energy shutoffs crisis in the long-term.” 

“Too many people are going into debt just to keep the lights on, keep the tap running, and keep the Wi-Fi from going dark,” said Dana Floberg, policy manager at Free Press Action. “When it comes to broadband, we know prices are too high for this essential service that families rely on for school, work, and organizing. Stopping utility shutoffs and easing the debt burden makes this crucial connectivity more accessible for the communities that need it most.”

“While we may be moving towards the light at the end of the Covid tunnel in this country, political leaders must understand that the economic impact of this pandemic still weighs heavily on many of our neighbors,” said Rianna Eckel, Senior Organizer, Food & Water Watch. “Access to water is a necessity for families trying to recover from the pandemic, but ever-growing utility debt and shutoffs loom ahead. Congress must urgently pass Senator Merkley’s proposal to alleviate this debt, and fully fund our water systems now.”

“No one should be left in the dark, offline, or without water because of debt from unaffordable bills,” said Alissa Weinman, Associate Campaign Director at Corporate Accountability. “Everyone should have access to vital utilities — especially during a pandemic and economic crisis. And eliminating utility debt is an important step toward realizing that future. What’s more, this bill would direct sorely needed federal funds toward our water infrastructure. Direct, federal investment into our water systems helps ensure they stay in the hands of the public, not corporations.”

“The introduction of this bill is an essential step in tackling the dual crises of the COVID-19 and the wave of utility debt threatening people’s right to water, broadband, and electricity,” said Leslie Saul-Gershenz, PhD Researcher and Conservation biologist. “We’re thankful for Senator Merkley’s commitment to ensuring people have access to these critical utilities and are not at risk of having their access shut off due to a mountain of past-due, unaffordable bills.”

“Seniors can’t afford to be without their utilities,” said Karen Reside, Secretary of Long Beach Gray Panthers. “Climate change is impacting seniors the most with increases in extreme temperatures. Utility shut offs must be prevented. It is really a matter of life or death for our nation’s seniors.”

“The Internet is not just an amenity. Today, it is a bridge to employment, education, services and information,” said Tracy Rosenberg, Executive Director of Media Alliance. “When we cut people off for economic shifts they can’t control, we are risking their health, safety and ability to recover. Our resiliency, during and after this catastrophic pandemic, is linked to each other. All Americans need these vital services to put themselves, and our economy back together again.”

Throughout the pandemic, Merkley has led his colleagues in a series of steps to demand protections for Americans against utility shut-offs amid the pandemic, including by introducing the Emergency Water and Energy is a Human Right Act and the CONNECT At Home Act. Additionally, Merkley has pushed congressional leaders to maintain services and provide resources for low-income Americans to maintain utility access in coronavirus relief legislation.

The full text of the bill is available here.