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LIPA, PSEG won't shut off power to late-paying customers, for now

LIPA said it will continue to assist customers

LIPA said it will continue to assist customers experiencing financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

LIPA and PSEG Long Island said they will refrain from terminating electric service to customers behind on their bills even after a state moratorium on shut-offs expired March 31.

The decision comes as the State Legislature last week passed a measure that would extend the moratorium on utility shut-offs for at least another 180 days after the state of emergency is lifted, or by year’s end. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has yet to sign the bill, is "negotiating" details of the measure with lawmakers, a spokesman said.

More than 1.2 million gas and electric ratepayers statewide were beyond on their bills as of December.

Efforts to extend the moratorium, which was put in place last spring after COVID lockdowns left many scrambling to pay bills, failed as part of state budget talks earlier this month. The original moratorium applied to water, gas and electric utility customers.

The Public Service Commission, which regulates the utility companies, said in a statement Friday that "negotiations continue regarding extending the moratorium." James Denn, the agency's spokesman, said nevertheless New York customers "continue to have strong consumer protections that remain firmly in place," including the Home Energy Fair Practices Act that prevents utilities from enforcing "sudden, unexpected terminations."

Utilities across the region have seen their arrears skyrocket during the COVID-19 pandemic, in part due to the loss of a powerful tool — electric terminations — to get customers to pay up. Utilities such as PSEG have for months included messages on bills alerting customers to the prospect of a shut-off, but noting terminations would not happen because of the moratorium. PSEG on Friday reiterated that bills still tell customers shut-offs "will not occur" due to COVID-19.

LIPA, which authorized extending the moratorium this month, in a statement explained it "continues to assist customers experiencing financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic." As such, "There are no plans at this time to lift the existing moratorium as we are not seeking to immediately resume shutoffs or late charges for customers who have been negatively impacted financially by the pandemic."

The state Department of Public Service, the administrative arm of the Public Service Commission, in March convened a workshop aimed at encouraging utilities to manage growing arrears, offer payment plans and arrears forgiveness programs to customers who continue to make some form of payment. Arrears for electric and gas across the state swelled to more than $1.25 billion in December, a 58% jump from the prior two Decembers.

On Long Island, arrears of more than 60 days swelled to more than $187 million as of February.

Denn of the PSC noted that the state budget passed earlier this month includes a measure to encourage utilities to forgo arrears collections from certain low-income renters by offering utilities a dollar-for-dollar tax credit on those arrears.

The bill that passed the legislature last week would extend the moratorium on shut-offs by water, electric and gas utilities.

PSEG spokeswoman Ashley Chauvin didn’t immediately say how long the company will honor the moratorium on shut-offs. She said the company attempts to work with customers on payment plans when they are behind on their bills. It has also waived late-payment fees. PSEG Long Island operates the Island’s electric grid under contract to LIPA.

"Our existing support programs remain in place," Chauvin said. "In addition to suspending electric service terminations, we have temporarily waived late-payment charges."

Customer service reps, she said, "have proactively reached out to customers to provide guidance on state and federal programs to help them manage their bills and set up payment agreements to pay what they can now and not get too far behind.

PSEG is working with LIPA on the prospect of arrears forgiveness programs, as recommended by the state, she said.

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