In late August, Pam Siegman was sitting shiva, mourning the passing of her husband, Stuart, when a National Grid worker pulled up for the second time this summer to collect a past-due bill.
"He said, 'I'm just here to collect the money or shut your gas off,' " she said.
For the Port Washington mother of four, two of them under 17 and living at home, it was another chapter in a summerlong customer service nightmare with the natural gas company that compounded a difficult illness and loss, she said.
The dispute reached its climax recently when Siegman was away on a business trip. Even though she had paid the utility nearly $800 on a Tuesday through online banking, the company turned off the gas the next day. Her children, under care of a nanny, went to school after taking cold showers, she said.
"What they've done is so horrific," she said. "I felt harassed by them."
In a statement, National Grid acknowledged that "the process broke down" in Siegman's case. The company said her payment posted that Wednesday and they restored her service that Thursday.
"We are very sorry for Mrs. Siegman's loss and any additional burden that this situation has caused," spokeswoman Wendy Ladd said in the statement. "In instances where there is illness in the family and payments are unable to be made, we work with the customer to ensure they can get through this tough time."
Stuart Siegman was 55 when he died Aug. 23. Pam Siegman said she had always kept up with current charges on the National Grid bill but had requested that the company send her copies of bills for a past-due balance of $788 -- a balance that accumulated when her husband neglected bills as his sickness worsened in the spring. "I wasn't going to pay it until they gave me proof of what it was," she said. She said that still hasn't happened.
Siegman acknowledged that when her husband's illness forced him to leave work in January and worsened in subsequent months, the family neglected bills. Her husband had always handled the bills, and the natural gas account was in his name.
Ladd noted there's a "process the customer has to follow in this case of arrears," but "somewhere along the line that process broke down, leading to this unfortunate situation."
The company said computer records from Siegman's account do not note that her husband had been ill and later died, facts Siegman said she and her son repeatedly told it in calls this summer.
After Newsday inquired, the company reviewed recorded phone calls and confirmed Siegman had mentioned her husband's illness as she tried to reconcile the bills. The company said "that should have been noted on her account."
Still, Ladd said customers seeking medical payment holds must "present a letter stating that the loss of service would be detrimental to their health." That would still require the Siegmans to have gone to a National Grid office to fill out a financial disclosure form and sign a deferred payment agreement.
Siegman said National Grid first came to her house in late June or early July, but a company employee saw her husband on oxygen and in the final stages of kidney cancer and left without cutting off service. When Grid showed up again a month later while the family was in the traditional Jewish rite of mourning, Siegman was stunned.
"I actually just stood outside afterward and I just cried," she said, after persuading the bill collector to leave without shutting off the gas or taking a payment.
But not all companies pursue past-due balances as aggressively as National Grid. Siegman said her PSEG Long Island balance had soared to more than $1,700 during her husband's illness, but the company never threatened to turn off the power.
"PSEG has been amazing," she said. "They put me on a plan. The woman took care of it on the phone. She said you can pay as little as $25 a month" above the current charges. "I've been paying it every month."