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New Yorkers Struggle to Pay Utility Bills Amid Pandemic

A mom with her son
Julia Schell and her son, Talin, live in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan. Schell fell behind on paying her energy bill after being unable to work during the coronavirus pandemic.
Photo by Natalie Keyssar

It didn’t take long for the automatic shutoff notices to show up, but Julia Schell wasn’t surprised. The 56-year-old New York City actress, photographer and single mother hasn’t been able to work since the pandemic began.

She received the latest notice about two weeks after a state-imposed moratorium on utility shutoffs ended in March. Then a more threatening notice from her energy company came—after she paid the bill.

“They’ve been ready to pounce for a long time,” said Schell, who lives in Manhattan’s East Village.

However, in May, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed an AARP-backed law that reinstated the moratorium and extended it until 180 days after the end of New York’s COVID-19 state of emergency or Dec. 31, whichever is earlier. It covers water, gas and electric utilities, as well as phone, cable and high-speed internet services.

For Schell, the roughly $900 a month she receives in pandemic unemployment aid and $400 in federal nutrition assistance have allowed her to keep up with her $800 rent, which is stabilized, and provide food for her 17-year-old son. But the electricity bill’s been tougher. 

She’s managed to make payments and tap into a city assistance program but remains in a dispute with ConEdison and the New York City Human Resources Administration about a balance of more than $1,000.   

“I don’t know what will happen,” said Schell, who has obtained advocacy assistance from the Albany-based Public Utility Law Project of New York (PULP).  

What comes next

The New York State Department of Public Service reported that more than 1.1 million residential electric and gas customers were more than 60 days past due on utility bills in March, with arrears totaling $1.28 billion. That’s an 82 percent increase compared with February 2020.

“There are always people struggling to pay their utility bills, and the pandemic only made it worse,” said Bill Ferris, AARP New York’s legislative representative, adding that many 50-plus residents have lost jobs.

Older adults, many of whom live on fixed incomes, are particularly vulnerable. If their internet is cut off, they lose one of the main ways they’ve stayed connected with family and friends, as well as received health care services via telehealth, Ferris said.

Under the new law, no one needs to take any steps during the moratorium to avoid shutoffs. But advocates worry that its eventual end could spur a wave of such actions, resulting in evictions.

“It is inconceivable that anyone could seriously think that at the end of the moratorium, everybody suddenly has money,” said Richard Berkley, PULP’s executive director.

He noted that people have still had to buy food and pay rent throughout the crisis. During the 180-day grace period after the moratorium ends, utility customers will no longer have to contact their supplier and self-certify that the pandemic has affected them financially, he added.

Utility companies must instead offer a deferred payment agreement without fees or penalties on any past-due balance.

If you experience a shutoff during the moratorium, the utility company has 48 hours to restore power. If you need help or your service hasn’t returned, go to dps.ny.gov/complaints or call 800-342-3377.

Donna Liquori is a writer living in Albany.

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