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PSEG bill may include termination notice despite state law barring shut-offs

PSEG bills may include a termination notice but

PSEG bills may include a termination notice but a spokeswoman said the note is only there for technical reasons, and users should instead refer to a message in smaller type above it.  Credit: Steve Haber

New York State outlawed the practice of shutting off service for nonpayment during the COVID-19 pandemic, but don’t be surprised if your PSEG bill still includes a termination notice if you don’t pay.

Steve Haber of Franklin Square received one on his most recent bill, an apparent mix-up that he said resulted from PSEG neglecting to send him a prior quarterly bill earlier this year.

At the top of the bill, in large bold letters, is a notice that reads, "THIS IS A FINAL TERMINATION NOTICE."

Just beneath is a note that says because of an allegedly unpaid balance, "your service is scheduled to be turned off if payment is not received by Oct. 19, 2020."

A PSEG spokeswoman said the bold-face note is only there for technical reasons, and users should instead refer to a message in smaller type above it. That message says, "Please note that due to COVID-19, shut-offs will not occur. This note is for information purposes only."

PSEG’s Elizabeth Flagler said the termination message is "one of the requirements for the customers to be eligible for HEAP," the Home Energy Assistance Program.

"We added the message about not terminating service to alleviate any customer anxiety," Flagler added.

State law enacted as part of COVID relief for New Yorkers forbids water, gas, electric and telecom utilities from shutting off service to customers until March 31, or 180 days after the COVID-19 state of emergency is lifted.

The State Department of Public Service has received fewer than 10 complaints about the termination notices on PSEG bills, the agency confirmed. None involved an actual shut-off.

Agency spokesman James Denn said PSEG and other utilities "may not terminate service for nonpayment at this time and for the duration of the state of emergency in compliance with the state’s utility moratorium law."

The Agency confirmed that highly visible shut-off notices to customers, including a late-bill notice, "is a requirement for HEAP eligibility purposes. Without such a notice, consumers would not become eligible for financial assistance under the HEAP program."

In addition, the state agency said, Home Energy Fair Practices Act rules "require that a disconnection/termination notice must be printed in a size type capable of attracting immediate attention. This is designed to ensure consumers are made aware of the notice."

Even after the state of emergency is lifted or expires, utilities are "prohibited from disconnecting residential customers for nonpayment if the customer says they have been financially harmed by COVID," the PSC spokesman said.

The Department of Public Service says if a residential customer is shut off for nonpayment in violation of the utility disconnection moratorium, they should file a complaint at 1-800-342-3377.

Haber said it’s hard to miss the message about termination given its prominence.

"It’s the biggest thing on the bill," he said of the boldface type.

While he quickly paid the balance, as he always does when he gets his energy bill, he called the termination notice "shocking and aggravating."

He called the state Department of Public Service to complain, about the lack of a quarterly spring bill. The agency told him, "they’re not going to do anything anyway," to terminate his service because of the law barring shut-offs.

PSEG and experts say if you are having problems paying your bill and need to take advantage of the state moratorium on shut-offs (and avoid late fees), it’s best to call the utility to tell them your circumstances, and see if a minimal payment plan can be arranged. Public Utility Law Project executive director Richard Berkley said that’s important because customers can get behind on multiple utility bills, and have a hefty balance due when the moratorium is lifted in the spring.

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