Senate Democrats call on power, water, telecom giants to halt all utility shutoffs

Top Senate Democrats are calling on electric, gas, water and telecommunications giants to voluntarily halt all utility shutoffs for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, raising fears that millions of Americans are falling behind on their bills and have no easy way to catch up.

The request – sent in a letter Friday to 21 of the largest utility companies – illustrates the country’s lingering economic needs even as Washington fails to coalesce around a new coronavirus relief package, which congressional Democrats say should include a disconnection ban and other aid to help families in dire financial straits.

Nine party lawmakers, led by Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), the top Democrat on the Banking Committee, and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), stressed that the absence of a federal shutoff moratorium particularly threatens Americans’ safety and wellbeing at a time when authorities are encouraging people to wash their hands frequently and work or learn from home.

They also pointed to recent reports from the Washington Post, and data compiled by the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, which found in October that roughly 179 million Americans are not protected against losing utility services by the end of the year if Congress does not authorize additional spending. Families nationwide stand to rack up more than $24 billion in back-due electric and gas debts over that same period, according to NEADA, which called on Congress at the time to act.

The lawmakers — including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) — said they continued to seek federal relief to help families as well as utility companies, which have witnessed a cash crunch of their own as a result of their customers’ inability to pay.

“In the meantime,” they continued, “we ask that you proactively cease all shutoffs by your companies for nonpayment for families dealing with the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic until such time as the President lifts the National Emergency declaration and the states in which you operate have lifted state emergency declarations.”

The Democrats directed their request to power and gas providers including Duke Energy and Exelon Corporation, water companies including American Water and Aqua America, and internet and phone companies such as AT&T and Verizon. All six companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Nearly eight months after the U.S. confirmed its first coronavirus case, the country’s utility shutoff protections remain a messy patchwork. There is no federal ban in place, and many states’ disconnections prohibitions from earlier in the pandemic have expired – though some parts of the country benefit from more limited, seasonal protections entering the colder winter months.

The gaps at the moment still have left more than half the country at the mercy of their power, water and internet companies, lawmakers signaled on Friday, some of which have resumed disconnections as the economy has slowly started to rebound.

Democratic lawmakers have tried for months to implement new federal utility protections and authorize billions of dollars to help people who are behind on their bills. But they have meet steep resistance from Republicans over a wide array of issues, including the total size of the next coronavirus aid package. Amid the disagreements, the Senate adjourned last week so that lawmakers could resume campaigning ahead of Election Day.

For now, the nine Democrats led by Brown and Merkley asked the 21 utility companies to furnish a vast amount of data about the total number of customers who are late on their payments, the number of disconnections they’ve served in the pandemic and the amounts in arrears that Americans have accrued. Lawmakers requested the information by November 13, seeking to address a longstanding knowledge gap in Washington that makes it nearly impossible for Congress to determine with pinpoint accuracy how badly families have fallen behind in their bills.

But the Democrats said the stories they had amassed so far reflected a need for a moratorium in the meantime, particularly to help minority and low-income families who have suffered higher rates of joblessness and other consequences as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Because of the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic, millions of Americans are struggling to make ends meet and are at risk for having their electricity, water, and broadband services terminated,” they said in their letter. “In order to effectively address the concurrent public health and economic crises, the families you serve must have uninterrupted access to these essential public services.”