WASHINGTON— Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) introduced a bill today that would place a national moratorium on the disconnection of electric, water and broadband utility service due to uncollected payments. An increasing number of people in the country are at risk of losing access to vital utilities, including electricity, water and broadband, as utility debt increases nationwide.
The Maintaining Access to Essential Services Act would provide low-interest loans to electric, water and broadband utilities to cover the cost of uncollected household payments in exchange for a moratorium on shutoffs.
“This bill is vital to address the reality that millions of families have been plunged into poverty because of COVID-19,” said Jean Su, energy justice director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Mounting utility debt digs that hole deeper and threatens their access to basic human rights of power, water and broadband access. Any notion of building back better must include this bill, which stops the immediate bleeding of utility shutoffs. We also need greater infrastructure investment in community and rooftop-solar solutions to stop the energy shutoff crisis in the long-term.”
Estimates show that people across the country are facing utility debt in the tens of billions as a direct result of the pandemic-driven unemployment crisis. Families of color have been disproportionately affected: A recent University of California, Los Angeles study found that up to one third of households in Los Angeles have utility debt and that 64% of people severely affected are in Latino and Black communities.
A national study showed that a moratorium on utility shutoffs could have reduced COVID-19 deaths by 14.8% because Americans could have had access to water and avoided congregating for heat and power. A study from Cornell University and Food & Water Watch similarly found that water shutoff protections were associated with significantly lower rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths. It estimated that a nationwide water shutoff moratorium might have prevented nearly 500,000 COVID cases and more than 9,000 deaths.
“Too many people are going into debt just to keep the lights on, keep the tap running, and keep the Wi-Fi from going dark,” said Dana Floberg, policy manager at Free Press Action. “When it comes to broadband, we know prices are too high for this essential service that families rely on for school, work and organizing. Stopping utility shutoffs and easing the debt burden makes this crucial connectivity more accessible for the communities that need it most.”
The loans would be forgiven if the utility forgives the household utility debt. For publicly owned, nonprofit and cooperative utilities, the federal government will cover 100% of the household debt forgiveness. For investor-owned utilities, the federal government will split the cost with the utility.
“While we may be moving towards the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel in this country, political leaders must understand that the economic impact of this pandemic still weighs heavily on many of our neighbors,” said Rianna Eckel, a senior organizer at Food & Water Watch. “Access to water is a necessity for families trying to recover from the pandemic, but ever-growing utility debt and shutoffs loom ahead. Congress must urgently pass Sen. Merkley’s proposal to alleviate this debt and fully fund our water systems now.”
Only 10 states currently collect data on the number of power shutoffs since the onset of the pandemic, but the numbers are alarming. A Center report found that more than half a million households in 10 states have experienced power shutoffs. Some utilities have reported shutoffs equivalent to as many as 6% of their customers, the report found.
"No one should be left in the dark, offline or without water because of debt from unaffordable bills,” said Alissa Weinman, associate campaign director at Corporate Accountability. “Everyone should have access to vital utilities — especially during a pandemic and economic crisis. And eliminating utility debt is an important step toward realizing that future. What's more, this bill would direct sorely needed federal funds toward our water infrastructure. Direct, federal investment into our water systems helps ensure they stay in the hands of the public, not corporations."
This bill aims to include a moratorium on all utility shutoffs in the oncoming infrastructure package.
“The introduction of this bill is an essential step in tackling the dual crises of the COVID-19 and the wave of utility debt threatening people’s right to water, broadband and electricity,” said Leslie Saul-Gershenz, Ph.D., a researcher and conservation biologist. “We’re thankful for Senator Merkley’s commitment to ensuring people have access to these critical utilities and are not at risk of having their access shut off due to a mountain of past-due, unaffordable bills.”
“Seniors can’t afford to be without their utilities,” said Karen Reside, secretary of Long Beach Gray Panthers. “Climate change is impacting seniors the most with increases in extreme temperatures. Utility shutoffs must be prevented. It is really a matter of life or death for our nation’s seniors.”
“The internet is not just an amenity. Today, it is a bridge to employment, education, services and information,” said Tracy Rosenberg, executive director of Media Alliance. “When we cut people off for economic shifts they can’t control, we are risking their health, safety and ability to recover. Our resiliency, during and after this catastrophic pandemic, is linked to each other. All Americans need these vital services to put themselves, and our economy back together again.”