Today, Community Legal Services and the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project released a report that reveals that Black and Latinx households in Pennsylvania are more likely to experience unaffordable utility costs and fall behind on their utility bills at a much higher rate than white households.
Many of these same communities were hardest hit by COVID-19 in the early months of the pandemic, experiencing both health issues at a much higher rate and also being more likely to lose their jobs and income. This furthers the need for policy changes that will help Black and Latinx communities to maintain affordable home utility service, as these communities recover from health and economic consequences of the pandemic.
Next week, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission will lift its COVID-19 moratorium on utility terminations for customers at all income levels. The end of the moratorium gives utilities the green light to begin service termination for nearly one million Pennsylvania consumers who have been unable to afford their utility bills.
Utility terminations destabilize homes and communities. As the end of the moratorium approaches, Pennsylvania lawmakers and utilities must take additional steps to ensure that communities of color are not disproportionately harmed when shut offs resume.
- Low-income, Black, and Latinx Pennsylvanians are more likely to be rent-burdened and pay more money toward their utility bills than their white counterparts. They are also more likely to experience utility insecurity.
- Areas with higher concentrations of minority residents have much higher rates of utility arrears and disconnections, and are more likely to require assistance from a utility customer assistance program in order to afford their utility bills.
- Communities with higher non-white shares of population were hit hardest by COVID-19, especially in the early months, suggesting that these communities will require additional targeted resources to address utility insecurity that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Recommendations for the Public Utility Commission:
- Track the equity impact of utility termination and affordability policy by collecting, maintaining, and publicly reporting data on universal service program enrollment, terminations, and arrearages at the census tract level. Granular data is critical to identifying and combatting racial inequality.
- Review and improve language access regulations to ensure that consumers with limited English proficiency are able to access utility services and enroll in available assistance programs.
- Expand existing arrearage management programs to serve a greater number of consumers.
- Ensure that all rates approved for service are affordable to the consumers served.
Recommendations for Pennsylvania’s legislature:
- Repeal Chapter 14 of the Public Utility Code, and fully restore consumers’ rights to seek equitable payment terms from the PUC based on individualized facts and circumstances.
- Require the PUC to oversee the creation of standardized universal service programming for water and wastewater service that will ensure low-income Pennsylvanians receive an affordable bill.
- Require unregulated utilities to comply with standardized billing, collections, and termination standards consistent with those required of regulated utilities.
- Reform the competitive electric and natural gas markets to protect consumers from excessive pricing and abusive marketing practices.
- Require the PUC to conduct an affordability analysis prior to approving any increase in utility rates.
Recommendations for utility service providers:
- Implement the PUC’s 2019 policy statement regarding Customer Assistance Programs, including but not limited to reduced energy burden standards, which limit energy costs to 6% of household income for the state’s lowest income households.
- Expand termination prevention outreach and assistance to families seeking to enroll in universal service programs.
- Ensure that all critical documents are available in Spanish and other commonly spoken languages.
- Eliminate barriers to customer enrollment in universal service programs, including waiver of burdensome documentation requirements and reducing up-front payment requirements for grant assistance.
Community Legal Services
“The pandemic has created significant hardships for Black and Latinx households and communities who continue to require utility service to reduce the spread of COVID-19 infection. The looming threat of utility terminations will leave too many of these households at risk, scrambling for resources to prevent shut offs at a time when they urgently require electricity to power critical devices and hot water for basic sanitation.”
Josie Pickens, Esq.
Community Legal Services, Energy Unit Co-Director
Pennsylvania Utility Law Project
“We firmly believe that all Pennsylvanians have the right to safe, reliable, and affordable utility services in their home, and that no household should face the loss of service simply because they cannot afford to pay. As this report makes painfully clear, race and economic status are often determining factors in whether a household can access and maintain utility services. As we embark on the long road to recovery, we must work together to root out structural inequities and ensure that all Pennsylvanians – regardless of race and economic status – have access to clean water, electricity, heat, and telecommunication services in their home.
Elizabeth Marx, Esq.
Executive Director, Pennsylvania Utility Law Project
Dan Treglia, PhD, Associate Professor of Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, Lead Researcher on Report
“Our analysis highlights the continued vulnerability of long-marginalized communities. Predominantly Black and Latinx communities were the most susceptible to utility insecurity and the health effects of COVID-19, and policymakers need to find better ways of addressing the underlying needs that put people at such high risk of bad outcomes.”