Cathy Psofimis, of Riverhead, had her power shut off in October due to nonpayment of her PSEG Long Island bill. She talked about her struggles Tuesday. Credit: John Roca; Photo Credit: Cathy Psofimis

PSEG Long Island has turned off electric power to more than 800 customers for nonpayment in November as higher winter energy costs begin to clash with the ability of some residents to pay other bills.

PSEG says it tries to work with customers to devise payment plans, but the utility also is stepping up efforts to get out from behind arrears that reached record levels during the COVID-19 pandemic, when shutoffs were prohibited.

One customer whose power was turned off last week was Catherine Psofimis, 77, a retiree from Riverhead, who contacted Newsday on Saturday as temperatures neared the freezing point.

“I am in my apartment with no heat or electricity because PSEG doesn’t work on weekends,” she said. She said she’d been to a nearby Suffolk County Department of Social Services office on Friday with a copy of her past-due electric bill to demonstrate that she needed help to get the power turned on, but PSEG offices closed before she could get through.

What to Know

  • PSEG Long Island has turned off electric power to more than 800 customers for nonpayment of bills in November.
  • 15,520 customers were shut off  between July 12 and Nov. 18 and that about 81% have had their power restored, PSEG says.
  • Customers who are signed up for Social Services can automatically qualify for help with their bills, the utility says.

In the dark and wrapped in blankets, she said, PSEG had told her she had to pay $900 of her past-due $1,744 bill to restore service. Paying that much was impossible, she said, because her Social Security check wouldn’t arrive until the following Wednesday.

After Newsday contacted LIPA and PSEG on Saturday, she said, her service was restored Saturday night because she had been working to avoid a shut-off but couldn't reach PSEG before its offices closed. But Psofimis isn't alone in dealing with a shut-off. 

PSEG spokeswoman Elizabeth Flagler said the utility has turned off power to 15,520 customers between July 12 and Nov. 18, including 834 in November. The vast majority of the shutoffs — 14,992 since July — are residential. Around 81% of those customers have had their power restored in the same period, PSEG says. 

The figures come as PSEG bills also reach new highs. The power supply charge portion of bills hit 13.8 cents a kilowatt-hour for November, a near record and a 21% increase from a year ago. Fuel oil prices earlier this month topped $6 a gallon, further squeezing the 400,000 Long Island homes that use fuel oil for heat.

Turning off the power to a late- or nonpaying customer is a last resort, the utility says.

“If a customer is in arrears, they are offered a payment agreement in accordance with Home Energy Fair Practices Act,” Flagler said. “The customer would submit paperwork to determine if they are eligible for an agreement with installments as low as $10 per month.”

She also said customers who are signed up for Social Services can automatically qualify for utility help.

For instance, customers enrolled in the Household Assistance Program, or who have received Emergency Rental Assistance Program money, qualify for the NYS Gas and Electric Bill Relief Credit.

However, she said, “If a customer is not enrolled in any of the above programs, they will be shut off.“

Psofimis said her problems began a year ago, when her boyfriend fell ill, was hospitalized and then confined to a nursing home, The income they used to pool to pay bills had to pay for nursing care as well as bills for his car payment, insurance and others. The car was recently repossessed after she was unable to make the monthly payment. She also fell behind on her National Grid bill, although part of her overdue bill for gas was covered by a grant from the emergency rental payment program.

Several protections in LIPA’s official rule book may have delayed a shut-off, including for seniors and those receiving social services, but it’s unclear if Psofimis was able to benefit from them.

Ian Donaldson, a spokesman for the Public Utility Law Project New York, or PULP, a utility watchdog group, said most investor-owned utilities across the state have winter heating moratoriums on shutoffs that prevent customers from being left without power in the colder months. 

Flagler said PSEG has "no shut-off moratorium in effect for the winter," although the utility does take "additional protections" when turning off heat-related service starting Nov. 1. 

Donaldson said a statewide moratorium on shutoffs related to COVID-19 ended in June, and for most utilities it's been "free rein" since. 

With utility rates and heating costs rising this year, Donaldson noted total statewide utility arrears are increasing, after falling earlier this year. At present statewide arrears for gas and electric service top $1.5 billion, well below the high of $1.95 billion at the height of the pandemic, but below the $1.47 billion reached earlier this year, with arrears forgiveness programs. Around 1.36 million homes across the state are in arrears, up 60,000 households since August. 

PULP offers free legal advice to utility customers facing shutoffs and other issues. PULP can be reached at 1-877-669-2572. 

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