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As temperature drops and virus cases climb, groups file for new Missouri utility disconnection moratorium

As temperature drops and virus cases climb, groups file for new Missouri utility disconnection moratorium

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Missouri utility disconnection moratorium expires

Mary Boyd stands on the balcony of her apartment in Hazelwood on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020, where she has been quarantining at home after testing positive for COVID-19 last week. She has been unable to take any shifts at work, which has left her with a several-hundred dollar electric bill that she doesn't have the money for. The utility assistance charity Heat Up St. Louis has agreed to help out Boyd, but after Missouri utilities lifted their disconnection moratoriums this summer, demand for assistance exceeds the charity's current funds. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — Since testing positive for COVID-19 last week, Mary Boyd has been quarantining at home, unable to take any shifts at the Nature’s Bakery plant where she works near her home in Hazelwood. And that’s left her with a several-hundred dollar electric bill and a looming utility disconnection.

“I don’t get paid for not working,” Boyd said. “If I don’t get paid, my bills don’t get paid.”

Boyd may be off the hook, temporarily — utility assistance charity Heat Up St. Louis has agreed to help out. But her plight, and that of thousands of others like her, has motivated consumer advocates in Missouri to push state regulators to halt utility disconnections until March 31. Coronavirus cases are surging, they argue, and utility disconnections displace residents and increase interactions that could further spread the virus.

“We’re going into the coldest part of the winter and the COVID numbers in the St. Louis area and throughout our state are steadily increasing,” said Jackie Hutchinson, executive director of the Consumers Council of Missouri. “This is an added risk to the health and safety of people in the state. When people have their utilities shut off, they move to relatives’ houses.”

The Consumers Council filed a request this week for an emergency disconnection moratorium from the Missouri Public Service Commission, the state body that regulates investor-owned utilities. The PSC has shortened the time for responses from utilities, which must file them by Monday.

When the pandemic began in March, for-profit utilities in the St. Louis area voluntarily placed moratoriums on disconnections for customers who had fallen behind on bills. But those bans were lifted in the summer, when case numbers looked better, the economy was reopening and even those who lost jobs had cash from federal emergency spending.

Now, cases are rising and it’s unclear whether Congress will pass a new package of stimulus to get the country over what many hope will be the last hump before vaccines are widely available. Millions on federal emergency unemployment programs will lose benefits at the end of the month when the programs expire, including as many as 80,000 in Missouri.

Ameren Missouri’s vice president of customer experience, Tara Oglesby, said several programs can help customers in financial distress make utility payments and even catch up on lingering balances. Ameren alone has pledged $3.5 million for its new Clean Slate program, which gives customers up to $500 toward unpaid balances if they can pay the first 25% of their past-due accounts.

That’s on top of federal programs for lower-income people, such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which got an extra $900 million from the federal coronavirus relief package passed in March when the pandemic began. St. Louis and St. Louis County have also directed several million dollars of their federal relief funds to utility assistance programs.

“We’re working with our customers in a variety of ways,” Oglesby said. “Not only low income but moderate income — anyone who’s been impacted by COVID-19.”

Missouri American Water, which serves St. Louis County and a swath of St. Charles County, said it, too, had multiple plans to help customers with late bills. “A shut-off is an absolute last resort,” spokeswoman Samantha Williams said in a statement.

St. Louis-based natural gas utility Spire also said it offers programs to help customers catch up on past-due bills, including one for small businesses that begins Monday.

“We recognize many are struggling during this time and if they are, we encourage them to contact us,” Spire spokesman Jason Merrill said in a statement. “We will work together with customers to find solutions.”

Ameren and Spire are already subject to the state’s “cold weather rule,” that bars disconnections when the temperature is forecast to fall below freezing the next day. But disconnections still can happen, especially in Missouri’s wildly fluctuating climate. And just how many disconnections have happened so far this year, or any year, is unknown. Utilities don’t release those numbers, though consumer groups are working with regulators to change that.

Ameren declined to release the number of disconnects this year. Oglesby said they’re down this year, due in part to the spring moratorium and in part to the financial assistance programs.

Still, said Jeanette Mott Oxford of Empower Missouri, which formed a utility disconnection task force that worked with the Consumers Council to file the PSC motion this week, the disconnections are coming.

“What there are is a lot more payment plans,” Mott Oxford said. “And those payment plans, folks are getting behind in them. So disconnects are coming, just as evictions are coming, if we don’t do something.”

Gentry Trotter, who runs Heat Up St. Louis, said his organization has awarded nearly all of its assistance — largely donations from Ameren and Spire, as well as appropriations from St. Louis and St. Louis County federal relief funds — to needy residents. The number of applicants who have never before sought assistance are up 50% this year, Trotter said, likely from people who have lost jobs in the food, hospitality and other hard-hit industries.

“There’s more need this year than money,” he said.

On Thursday afternoon, Evergy, which operates the electric utility serving residents in Kansas City and Western Missouri, said on Twitter that it was suspending disconnections until March 1 “as a result of the pandemic, winter season and upcoming changes to our customer billing systems.”

Illinois utilities — including Ameren Illinois — have already agreed to a moratorium on disconnections to March 31. Still, Ameren’s Missouri counterpart doesn’t believe it’s necessary west of the Mississippi River. Putting a moratorium in place, Oglesby said, can lead to worse financial pain down the road.

“By helping them along the way with the options that are available, it’s really good for them rather than being overwhelmed at a certain point of time,” Oglesby said.

Trotter agreed that utilities like Ameren are often willing to help customers come up with a repayment plan, and he encouraged people to contact them and let them know about a job loss or financial impact from the pandemic.

“Don’t be afraid of the utilities,” he said. “Pick up the phone.”

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