Good Friday Morning, Fellow Seekers.
With many Pennsylvania households scrambling to keep the lights on during the pandemic, a new report reveals that the state’s Black and Latino residents are more likely to face unaffordable utility costs and fall behind on their utility bills at a much higher rate than are 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,” the joint report by Community Legal Services and the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project concludes.
The report’s release comes days before state utility regulators are set to lift a pandemic-inspired moratorium on utility shutoffs. The move by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission gives service-providers the green light to figuratively turn the lights off on nearly 1 million consumers who can’t afford to pay their bills, the two advocacy groups write.
The amount of unpaid bills has increased by 67 percent since 2019 to $1 billion in February, according to reporting by USA Today’s Pennsylvania Capital Bureau. Shutoffs had resumed for some customers last November, but existing state guidelines sheltered consumers with an income of less than 300 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, USA Today’s bureau further reported.
Experts from the two advocacy groups found, among other things, that:
- “Low-income, Black, and Latinx Pennsylvanians are more likely to be rent-burdened and pay more money toward their utility bills than white Pennsylvanians. 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,” and
- “Communities of color 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.”
“These findings have important policy implications. Federal and state government’s relief through moratoria on utility shutoffs should be paired with aggressive outreach to enroll potentially eligible clients into utility assistance programs and additional financial assistance for vulnerable households,” the report’s authors wrote. “Broad financial and flexible assistance, like unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, may also be helpful as households that face utility insecurity often face other financial struggles. In addition, governments and utility companies alike must do more to ensure long-term utility affordability and security among low-income households.”
The report includes a number of recommendations for the Public Utility Commission, the General Assembly, and service providers.
The recommendations for the PUC include:
- “[Tracking] 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.
- “[Reviewing] and [improving] language access regulations to ensure that consumers with limited English proficiency are able to access utility services and enroll in available assistance programs.
- “[Expanding] existing arrearage management programs to serve a greater number of consumers,” and
- [Ensuring] that all rates approved for service are affordable to the consumers served.”
The recommendations for the Legislature include:
- “[Repealing] Chapter 14 of the Public Utility Code, and fully restoring consumers’ rights to seek equitable payment terms from the PUC based on individualized facts and circumstances.
- “[Requiring] 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.
- “[Requiring] unregulated utilities to comply with standardized billing, collections, and termination standards consistent with those required of regulated utilities.
- “[Reforming] the competitive electric and natural gas markets to protect consumers from excessive pricing and abusive marketing practices,” and
- “Requiring the PUC to conduct an affordability analysis prior to approving any increase in utility rates.”
In a Capital-Star op-Ed published last August, Josie Pickens and Robert W. Ballenger, the co-director of Community Legal Services’ energy unit, said Chapter 14 of the utility code was “an unjustified and inequitable law designed to increase collections for Philadelphia Gas Works,” and called for its repeal.
“Chapter 14 instituted draconian restrictions on consumer access to payment arrangements and the commission’s dispute process, meaning that people cannot fairly receive opportunities to catch up on their bills when they fall behind, leading to more utility terminations,” Pickens and Ballenger wrote.
The recommendations for service-providers include:
- “[Implementing] 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 percent of household income for the state’s lowest income households.
- “[Expanding] termination prevention outreach and assistance to families seeking to enroll in universal service programs.
- “[Ensuring] that all critical documents are available in Spanish and other commonly spoken languages,” and
- “[Eliminating barriers] to customer enrollment in universal service programs, including waiver of burdensome documentation requirements and reducing up-front payment requirements for grant assistance.”
“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,” Pickens said in a statement. “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.”
And as the state moves out of the pandemic, “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, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project, said in a statement.
As a member of the state House, then Rep. Fred Keller, R-Snyder, backed gun restrictions for domestic abusers. But as a member of Congress, representing north-central Pennsylvania’s 12th District, he voted against them, Stephen Caruso reports.
Philadelphia’s city payroll system’s errors can leave some with hefty bills, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.
Frank Scavo, a NEPA Republican who ran for the General Assembly, has been charged in connection with the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, and surrendered to federal authorities on Thursday, Stephen Caruso also reports.
In the first news conference of his administration, President Joe Biden slammed an ‘un-American’ GOP drive to curb voting rights in the states, including Pennsylvania, Capital-Star Washington Reporter Laura Olson writes.
In a column, I argue that if Congress is serious about combating gun violence, it needs to enact a new assault weapons ban. It did it once before — and it worked.
On our Commentary Page this morning, two experts argue that Dr. Rachel Levine, of Pennsylvania, newly confirmed for the No. 2 job at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, will be an advocate for rural healthcare. And an environmental advocate from western Pennsylvania says that every community deserves to be protected from the damage inflicted by natural gas exploration and development.
En la Estrella-Capital: Garrity respalda a Torsella para impulsar la supervisión del fondo de pensiones de maestros en medio de una investigación interna. Y Wolf nombra a Meg Snead para dirigir el Departamento de Servicios Humanos tras la renuncia de la Secretaria Teresa Miller.
Despite early problems and criticism from lawmakers, Gov. Tom Wolf says Pennsylvania’s vaccine rollout is going well, the Inquirer reports.
U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-18th District, “tangled” with Big Tech during a Capitol hearing, the Post-Gazette reports.
PennLive runs down what we know about safely returning to movie theaters.
The Wolf administration is refusing to release details of wasted vaccine doses, Spotlight PA reports (via LancasterOnline/paywall).
Allentown City Council is giving tiny homes a closer look, the Morning Call reports.
Pennsylvania has hit 1 million COVID-19 cases, the York Daily Record reports (paywall).
Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:
More than 200 people rallied against Asian-American violence during an event in Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood on Thursday, WHYY-FM reports.
Faculty members from the Pa. State System of Higher Education have rebuked the system’s chancellor for suggesting he would support a plan to dissolve the system, WITF-FM reports.
Washington County is on pace for record number of overdose deaths in 2021, the Observer-Reporter reports.
More than 150 animals were rescued from an abandoned property in Crawford County, GoErie reports (paywall).
A former aide to Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Indiana, who retired earlier this month, will be the Republican candidate for his seat in the May 18 special election, PoliticsPA reports.
With action in Georgia on Thursday, the GOP wave of voting restrictions has reached a swell, Stateline.org reports.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has rolled out nearly $3 trillion in proposed tax increases, Roll Call reports.WolfWatch.
Gov. Tom Wolf has no public schedule today.
You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to reader Nikkilia Lu, of Pittsburgh, and our former Morning Call colleague Gene Ordway, both of whom celebrate today. Advance good wishes go out to PennLive photographer Vicki Vellios Breiner, Novak Strategy Group honcho Dan Hayward, all of whom celebrate on Saturday. Congratulations all around, folks.
Dept. of Deck Chair Rerranging.
From Wired, this is the best explanation you’re going to read about how that ship got stuck in the Suez Canal, and how they’re trying to get it unstuck.
Keane’s ‘Somewhere Only We Know,’ was already gorgeous. This version from Lily Allen, which featured in a John Lewis Christmas advert a few years ago, will absolutely break your heart.
Friday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
Carolina got past Columbus 4-3 in overtime on Thursday night. The ‘Canes’ Dougie Hamilton extended his points streak to 13 games on the way to the win.
And now you’re up to date.