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COVID-19

More people unable to pay utility bills, with colder months coming

Jasmine Garsd Nov 13, 2020
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The protections against shut-offs are lifting and disconnections have already begun. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
COVID-19

More people unable to pay utility bills, with colder months coming

Jasmine Garsd Nov 13, 2020
Heard on:
The protections against shut-offs are lifting and disconnections have already begun. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

According to the U.S. Census bureau, one-third of adults say they face difficulty meeting their regular household expenses. As temperatures continue to drop, unemployment remains high, and additional pandemic relief aid is stalled, activists are warning about an energy crisis: a growing number of Americans who are unable to pay for utility bills like gas, heat, electricity and water.

Richard Ferreira directs community services for Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton in New Jersey. They give money to people who can’t pay their utility bills.

He said, normally, they get about 15 calls a day, “but now we seem to be spiking to like 35 to 40 calls a day.”

When the pandemic started, New Jersey was one of 32 states that prevented people’s utilities from being disconnected. For New Jersey, it goes until March of next year.

But those bills will keep stacking up, and Ferreira worries that debt will further exacerbate the housing crisis and lead to evictions.

“Evictions — rental arrears and utility arrears go hand in hand,” he said. “Because people are moving monies, they’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. They don’t pay their rent with hopes of trying to get their utilities stabilized.”

According to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, electric and gas debt is expected to be more than $24 billion by the end of this year. That’s three to four times what it was last year.

The protections against shut-offs are lifting and disconnections have already begun. Tens of thousands across the country have lost their power, which is disproportionately affecting people of color.

“As compared to white households, Hispanic households were 15 times more likely to have their household disconnected for the first time, since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Michelle Graff, who teaches energy policy at Indiana University. “And Black households were 6 times more likely.”

It’s not just about staying warm through the winter. It’s a public health issue, said Ariel Drehobl with the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

“Many people are working and learning from home, and need to wash their hands frequently, keep food and medicine cool in a refrigerator that’s running on electricity,” Drehobl said. “It’s really important that people have access to the utilities now.”

Utility companies across the country say they are offering payment plans, and the federal program that helps low-income families pay their energy bills got an extra $900 million from the CARES Act. But that was back in May, and the coldest months are still ahead.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Can businesses deny you entry if you don’t have a vaccine passport?

As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the economy begins reopening, some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination to enter their premises. The concept of a vaccine passport has raised ethical questions about data privacy and potential discrimination against the unvaccinated. However, legal experts say businesses have the right to deny entrance to those who can’t show proof.

Give me a snapshot of the labor market in the U.S.

U.S. job openings in February increased more than expected, according to the Labor Department. Also, the economy added over 900,000 jobs in March. For all of the good jobs news recently, there are still nearly 10 million people who are out of work, and more than 4 million of them have been unemployed for six months or longer. “So we still have a very long way to go until we get a full recovery,” said Elise Gould with the Economic Policy Institute. She said the industries that have the furthest to go are the ones you’d expect: “leisure and hospitality, accommodations, food services, restaurants” and the public sector, especially in education.

What do I need to know about tax season this year?

Glad you asked! We have a whole separate FAQ section on that. Some quick hits: The deadline has been extended from April 15 to May 17 for individuals. Also, millions of people received unemployment benefits in 2020 — up to $10,200 of which will now be tax-free for those with an adjusted gross income of less than $150,000. And, for those who filed before the American Rescue Plan passed, simply put, you do not need to file an amended return at the moment. Find answers to the rest of your questions here.

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