ATLANTA — The state’s moratorium on utility disconnects ended less than a week ago, making payments due for customers across the state who may be struggling with bills during pandemic job loss and previous circumstances worsened by the current economy.
Channel 2 investigative reporter Nicole Carr has found that in most cases, customers have been taking advantage of payment plans and providers saying, “Call us. We will work this out.”
Still, advocates worry people won’t be able to continue pushing those bills off month to month in an effort to catch up now that disconnections are back in play.
“People don’t want to not pay their bills, right?” said Chandra Farley, director of the Just Energy Program at the Partnership for Southern Equity. “It’s been difficult. A lot of people don’t want to talk about not being able to pay their bills.”
There are questions now of how much people can continue to push their debts back.
“We know that community action agencies and support groups are seeing an influx in new people. People that have never had to depend on these types of assistance programs before because they’ve been laid off, they’ve been furloughed or because their jobs simply are not coming back,” Farley said.
Atlanta Gas Light serves as what you can compare to the highway for gas marketers, driving the actual gas service for 1.65 million customers in Georgia.
Marketers, the companies that you pay for the service, assess fees from AGL to deliver the service.
They are the ones you’d see when your gas is cut off, and once marketers give them the order.
“They’ve worked really hard not to cut their customers off,” said Bryan Batson, President of Atlanta Gas Light and Chattanooga Gas. “We’ve only disconnected, so far in COVID, about 6,800 customers. That’s been over these last couple weeks. And of the 6,800, 900 were actually able to arrange to have the bill paid or have an agreement in place that when we got there, our person was able to say ‘OK, there’s a paid order in the system. I don’t need to cut it off.’”
During this interview on the day after the moratorium ended, AGL also told Channel 2 Action News there were another 50,000 people eligible for disconnection who did not have a plan in place, but 22,000 who were set for disconnection and making payment arrangements to prevent that.
That total is half the number of people who were set to be disconnected during the same period last year — likely because of arrangements available to them, coupled with the fact that some people routinely let their gas service shut off in spring and summer months and just reconnect for the winter.
“Over 10% of the people who were in cue to be cut off so far have gone to make arrangements and haven’t even been cut off. If we cut you off, and you’ve made an arrangement, we come back within three days. Right now, it’s looking like the same day or the next day, and we reconnect your service,” Batson said.
Georgia EMC does not keep statewide data on provider service. We were unable to immediately get Cobb and Central Georgia EMC numbers, but two of the state’s largest electric marketers — Jackson EMC and Georgia Power — were able to provide a window into pandemic disconnect figures.
Georgia Power, which services 2.6 million customers, had disconnected 1,536 customers, most of them with accounts believed to be vacant properties. But the company had nearly 50,000 customers sign up for a payment plan, having a chance to pay past due balances over a six-month period — from October of this year to March 2021.
On Thursday, Jackson EMC told Carr it extended the disconnect deadline to next month. At this point, less than 3%, or 7,000 individual accounts, are eligible for disconnection.
A smaller provider also gave a glimpse of the number of potential disconnections.
Greystone has 121,000 customers in eight counties. Only 1,234 customers were disconnected, and 90% worked something out to pay in full right away or via a payment arrangement.
Advocates say they’re still pushing the state for another moratorium and for better ways to communicate resources to customers.
“If there’s one thing that this pandemic has showed us, it’s that the digital divide is real, and this is something that we even faced before COVID — that the people who need help, need assistance, need access to these programs the most don’t know about them, don’t know how to access them because everyone doesn’t have broadband. Everyone doesn’t have web-enabled phones,” Farley said.
Georgia Power spokesman Craig Bell said Tuesday that a phone call will go a long way.
He urged customers to call Georgia Power or pick up when company representatives contact them, and they can point the customer in the right direction to get assistance, whether it be through the federal government or nonprofits.
Here are some links to help you with payment assistance:
Georgia Power partners with nonprofit, community and faith-based organizations to offer assistance programs to those in need. These programs include:
- Georgia Power’s Senior Citizen Discount – Georgia Power customers 65 years of age or older who meet the income requirements for eligibility can receive up to $24 a month off their bill.
- Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) – Georgia Power supports the Division of Family & Children Services to help qualifying, low-income households pay their home energy bills.
- The Salvation Army’s Project SHARE – Established in partnership with The Salvation Army, Georgia Power customers can provide assistance to residents in the same community for expenses, such as utility bills, housing, food and medical necessities.
Visit www.GeorgiaPower.com/EnergyAssistance for more information.
Atlanta Gas Light energy assistance: https://www.atlantagaslight.com/residential/ways-to-save/energy-assistance-programs.html
Senior Citizens Discount Program: Customers 65 years of age or older and who have a total annual combined household income of $25,520 or less are eligible for up to a $14 monthly discount on their base charge. Natural gas service must be in the customer’s name to be eligible. If you qualify, please complete the mail-in application (English & Español).
Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) Total appropriation: $900 million Program description: LIHEAP is a federally-funded, state-administered program that helps low-income households with home energy bills. The assistance is available in all 159 counties in Georgia. Locate contact information for the Community Action Agencies in your area at: http://www.georgiacaa.org/membership/agency-finder/
Small Business Administration (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program Total appropriation: $349 billion Program description: The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) is an SBA loan to help businesses keep their workforce employed during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. To apply: Apply through any existing SBA 7(a) lender or through any federally-insured depository institution, federally insured credit union and Farm Credit System institution that is participating. Other regulated lenders will be available to make these loans once they are approved and enrolled in the PPP program. Consult with your local lender.
For full details: https://www.sba.gov/funding-programs/loans/paycheck-protection-program-ppp For resources specific to Georgia & webinars: https://www.georgiasbdc.org/georgia-small-business-recovery/
Other Local Assistance
HopeWorks (for seniors 65 or older) - 404.872.0167 (option 1) hopeworks4us.org
Project Share of the Salvation Army - 800.257.4273 salvationarmyatlanta.org/project-share
St. Vincent DePaul Society - 770.458.9607 svdpgeorgia.org
United Way Dial 211 to speak with a representative from the Georgia United Way Referral Center to learn about organizations in your area that have available assistance.
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