Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley and Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) today partnered with Representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Debbie Dingell (D-MI) to introduce legislation, along with five of their Senate colleagues, that would protect Americans’ access to the water and power necessary for households to safely maintain social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although many utility companies voluntarily committed to protect their communities’ essential services, and some states have implemented mandates, there remains in place a patchwork system that leaves many Americans vulnerable to having vital services cut off. Today’s legislation would ensure that millions of Americans can safely shelter in place at a time when Americans are being urged to stay at home as much as possible to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
“Now—as millions of Americans are being urged to stay home—would be the absolute worst time for Americans to lose critical utilities like electricity and water,” said Merkley. “Our communities deserve to know that as we weather the social and economic consequences of this storm together, they will still have access to these vital services. Congress must include these protections in the next coronavirus response bill.”
“Access to clean water and electricity are basic human rights in a pandemic and beyond. Utility shutoffs are devastating for families – and they hit low-income communities and communities of color especially hard,” said Senator Warren. “I’m glad to be co-leading this bill with Senator Merkley to prohibit water and power shut-offs, extend economic relief to families, and provide water assistance to low-income households during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“People are really struggling right now. Parents are out of work, kids are hungry, and families are at risk of losing access to water and electricity. This is especially problematic during a pandemic where Americans are asked to stay at home and frequently wash their hands. The Emergency Water and Energy is a Human Right Act is a commonsense solution to this problem and should be included in Congress’ next COVID-19 relief bill,” said Senator Harris.
“When Congresswoman Dingell and I introduced our Emergency Water is a Human Right Act in April, it was with the one in 20 households who had experienced a water shutoff prior to the onset of the pandemic—and the countless others who would be forced to face it without the crucial ability to wash their hands—in mind,” Congresswoman Tlaib said. “The economic strife we have seen since has been devastating, with countless families struggling to afford their water and utility bills. It doesn’t have to be this way. That’s why I could not be more thankful to Senator Merkley for making the effort to ensure water is a human right a bicameral one. I look forward to working alongside him and my colleagues in the House and Senate to provide a key lifeline to our communities.”
“Access to clean water is a human right,” Congresswoman Dingell said. “At a time when people need to stay home and keep up washing their hands and cleaning, every family must have access to running water in their homes. Many communities and states have stepped up to not turn off water, but we must ensure a comprehensive federal ban on water shutoffs.”
The Emergency Water and Energy is a Human Right Act is a companion to Reps. Tlaib and Dingell’s House bill and was included in the House’s Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which passed the House in May. It would protect Americans’ access to electricity, running water, and other critical utilities during the crisis by barring any utilities that receive federal support in the next round of relief funding from shutting off power or water to consumers. Additionally, the bill would require providers to reconnect households that have been disconnected during the pandemic and allocate $1.5 billion in grants to assist low-income households paying a high proportion of household income for drinking water and wastewater service.
Tens of millions of Americans have lost work since March, and millions are finding themselves unable to pay their bills. This is especially true for low-income families, who were struggling to pay rising bills even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Throughout the coronavirus crisis, Senator Merkley has kept a steady drumbeat on the need to protect vulnerable and low-income Americans from dangerous utility shut-offs. The senator has supported a resolution and led multiple calls to Congressional leadership to demand utility protections in order to help protect the health, well-being, and security of families across the country. In May, Senator Merkley led the introduction of the CONNECT Act to put in place a moratorium on internet shut-offs during the pandemic.
The Emergency Water and Energy is a Human Right Act is also cosponsored by U.S. Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH).