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Merkley, DeFazio, Colleagues Demand Protections For Americans Against Utility Shut-offs Amid Pandemic

Apr 15, 2020
Press Release
Running water, electricity, heat are essential to recovering from, reducing spread of the coronavirus

Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley and Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR-4) today led a group of 113 members of Congress, including Senator Wyden and Representatives Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR-1) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR-3), in pushing congressional leadership to institute a nationwide moratorium on utility shut-offs amid the mounting economic insecurity caused by the coronavirus pandemic, in order to help protect the health, well-being, and security of families across the country.

“Utility services are especially critical for public health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Water service ensures that Americans can handwash and disinfect surfaces necessary to slow and stop the coronavirus outbreak,” the lawmakers wrote. “Electricity is necessary for families to turn on the lights and have refrigerated food to eat. Internet access is essential for many employees to be able to work from home and for children who are out of school to access educational resources. Millions working service jobs on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic are facing disconnection.”

As jobless claims continue to spike—with millions of new claims being filed every week—millions of Americans are finding themselves unable to pay their bills. This is especially true for low-income families, which are more likely to pay higher rates for basic utilities, including electricity and heat. While some individual states and utilities have put in place moratoriums on disconnections, these policies currently provide an inconsistent patchwork of protections, with many Americans at risk of falling through the cracks.

“Utility insecurity is felt by low-wealth Americans, rural and tribal communities and people of color. Newly unemployed Americans are facing disconnection because of the loss of income,” the lawmakers continued. “Vulnerable elderly populations need electricity to run life-saving medical equipment, keep medications refrigerated, and keep their homes at liveable temperatures. These are the communities that need congressional protections the most.”

Specifically, the lawmakers request that the moratorium last for at least six months beyond the end date of the national state of emergency, to allow for a sufficient grace period for families to recover from unemployment and other coronavirus-related economic impacts. In addition, the lawmakers advocated that all families whose services have already been cut off should be safely reconnected, and that Congress must provide the support necessary to ensure that low-wealth families’ late bill payments and fees should be forgiven until the end of the grace period. The lawmakers also request that utility companies also receive support for operations in light of declining revenues caused by unemployment and small business shutdowns, which is especially important for Oregon’s small and rural utilities.

Previously, Senator Merkley led an effort, which Senator Wyden joined, to push Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to include utility shut-off protections in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The Senators also joined colleagues to introduce a congressional resolution urging states and utility companies to issue a moratorium on gas and electric service disconnections, rate hikes, and fees. Earlier this week, a group of more than 800 civil rights organizations, faith groups, and environmental and economic advocates came together to echo this call for a nationwide moratorium in a letter to congressional leaders.

Merkley, DeFazio, Wyden, Bonamici, and Blumenauer were joined in sending today’s letter by 15 Senators and 95 Representatives.

The full text of the letter is available here and follows below.

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Dear Speaker Pelosi, Leader McConnell, Leader McCarthy and Leader Schumer,

We write to request that Congress protects the most vulnerable Americans from the danger and insecurity that results from utility shut-offs by putting a nationwide moratorium on essential utility service disconnections until the COVID-19 pandemic threat has passed and the country’s economy has stabilized as part of the next COVID-19 package. A moratorium would provide important temporary relief during this COVID-19 crisis, but as we seek to recover from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to invest in addressing the systemic issues driving unjust utility burdens across America.

While the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act included important paycheck and eviction protection measures, it failed to ensure that families will continue to have access to the basic utility services—including electricity, water and wastewater, heating, telecommunications, and internet—essential to survive during this health crisis.

Utility services are especially critical for public health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Water service ensures that Americans can handwash and disinfect surfaces necessary to slow and stop the coronavirus outbreak. Electricity is necessary for families to turn on the lights and have refrigerated food to eat. Internet access is essential for many employees to be able to work from home and for children who are out of school to access educational resources. Millions working service jobs on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic are facing disconnection.

Utility insecurity is felt by low-wealth Americans, rural and tribal communities and people of color. Newly unemployed Americans are facing disconnection because of loss of income. Vulnerable elderly populations need electricity to run life-saving medical equipment, keep medications refrigerated, and keep their homes at livable temperatures. These are the communities that need congressional protections the most.

We applaud the many utilities and that have taken voluntary steps to prevent disconnections during this crisis. Many states have also issued orders to keep utility services connected.

For all of us to get through this together we need to have a national policy with clear standards that utilities can follow, and ensure that no family is left behind in the patchwork of policies. The federal government should provide utilities with support for operations as well as customers, especially in light of declining utility revenues caused by unemployment, small business shutdowns, and rising poverty.

Congress cannot simply give low-wealth Americans a short-term reprieve on disconnections without ensuring them adequate time to recover from job losses and other coronavirus impacts. Families should not be condemned to a growing and unpayable utility burden that comes due at the end of this national emergency. We must ensure that these essential services are maintained when the COVID-19 pandemic threat has passed and the country’s economy has stabilized.

We ask that the nationwide moratorium last for at least six months beyond the end date of the national state of emergency to allow for a sufficient grace period for families to recover from unemployment and other coronavirus-related impacts. All families whose services have already been cut off should be safely reconnected. All late fees and bill payments for low-wealth families should be forgiven through the end of the grace period. Congress must provide federal support to make this possible.

The COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted the systemic problems of poverty and utility insecurity in the United States and its disparate impact on low-wealth communities and communities of color. When Congress enacts legislation to speed the economic recovery of our country, it should prioritize permanently increasing the economic security for low-wealth individuals. Priority should go to building infrastructure to support distributed renewable energy, safe water systems, and broadband access in rural areas.

Now is the time for our country to provide relief for the communities that are being most harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic. We look forward to working with you to find a workable solution for all families in this difficult time.

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