Texas utility regulators have programs to prevent shutoffs during the pandemic. But some Texans are falling through the cracks.

By Juan Pablo Garnham | The Texas Tribune
Posted 4/18/20

Carly Eaves had to choose between paying for food or covering the electricity bill. She chose food.

Eaves, of Santa Fe, was laid off from her job as a server at a Waffle House last month, and her …

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Texas utility regulators have programs to prevent shutoffs during the pandemic. But some Texans are falling through the cracks.

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Carly Eaves had to choose between paying for food or covering the electricity bill. She chose food.

Eaves, of Santa Fe, was laid off from her job as a server at a Waffle House last month, and her husband lost his job as a line cook at an Olive Garden as Texas businesses shuttered or limited operations under officials’ orders meant to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

As money dried up and bills piled up, Express Energy sent them a letter threatening to disconnect their electricity. The company offered a payment plan, but that required at least $90 to keep the power on. It was money Eaves said they didn't have. She tried to opt into a Public Utility Commission program for people receiving unemployment aid, like her husband, so a moratorium on utility shutoffs would apply to their household. But she could never get through.

"I spent all of our money on food," said Eaves, a mother of three kids who is studying accounting. "That’s all that I could do. For a family of five with no income, we didn't have enough for anything else."

The PUC regulates Texas’ electric, telecommunication, water and sewer utilities. It has implemented policies to prevent people whose incomes have been slashed from having their utilities cut off during a public health crisis in which officials are pushing people to stay at home and practice stringent hygiene. But some Texans, like the Eaves family, are falling through the cracks of a complicated bureaucracy and a patchwork system of utility regulation.

On March 26, the PUC issued several orders for energy companies in the competitive market that covers most of the state. The commission required companies to offer deferred payment plans during the COVID-19 crisis if customers need one. And it told providers to halt utility disconnections for six months for people getting Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan or unemployment insurance. On Friday, the PUC updated the program so that the moratorium will end July 17, earlier than initially ordered. But the commission could extend it past that date at future meetings.

Still, that moratorium requires Texans to opt into the program, which Eaves said was next to impossible because it was so hard to get through to the hotline.

An Express Energy representative could not be reached for comment to discuss the Eaves' situation. During a PUC meeting Friday, Chairman DeAnn T. Walker acknowledged problems Texans are facing as they try to get the protections her agency announced. She said customers have complained about being on hold for hours, having calls disconnected, not getting calls back and having their power cut despite attempts to go through proper channels.

“Several of the complaints we've gotten is that they have called asked for deferred payment plans and said, no, we're only going to extend you for 10 days, and we're going to give you this extension for 10 days and until you can work through things," she said. "That is not the intent.”

Andrew Barlow, a spokesman for the commission, told The Texas Tribune that 123 people have lodged informal complaints about the program, but there have been no formal complaints that would lead to an investigation, fines or a settlement.

Several parts of the state have city-owned utility companies and cooperatives, which are outside of the Public Utilities Commission’s jurisdiction. Many of those companies are not disconnecting their customers, but the length of protections and the level of information provided varies across the state. And in the 26 counties outside of the competitive electricity market — places like El Paso and a vast area near the Louisiana border — the PUC has halted all disconnections until May 15 without requiring residents to opt in to a program.

Plano residents DeAnn Massey and her husband knew deferred payment plans were an option. But when they called Amigo Energy’s customer service line, an agent of the company declined to give them one.

Massey is only working one or two days a week for a cleaning company. Her husband still has his customer service job but lost his second gig at a gym.

“Before the cutoff date, we contacted them asking if they can defer the payment. They were very rude and told my husband no,” Massey said. “We are not trying to not pay, we were trying to find an arrangement.”

On Monday morning, their power was cut off.

Boyd Erman, a spokesperson for Amigo parent company Just Energy, said the provider is “working tirelessly to train our customer service agents on the rapidly evolving situation” of new guidelines implemented in the wake of the pandemic.

The Masseys called again during the outage and worked out a deal. They paid $98 of the $313 they owed and got their power restored.

“We have since spoken to the customer on April 13 and set up a payment deferral, issued a reconnect and made them aware of state resources,” Erman said.

Still, working out a payment plan doesn’t guarantee Texans won’t get disconnected.

“If a customer gets a deferred payment plan (DPP) with their retail electric provider (REP) and is not enrolled in Electricity Relief Program (ERP) then does not pay their bill in accordance with the DPP, their service can be disconnected until their bill is paid,” Barlow said via email.

Customers can sign up for the relief program at txcovid19erp.org or by calling 866-454-8387. The relief program is available for households receiving specific government benefits, which include unemployment insurance payments.

But as hundreds of thousands of Texans can now attest, reaching the Texas Workforce Commission to file an unemployment claim can be difficult. More than 1 million Texans have applied for unemployment insurance since mid-March, including 273,567 the week ending April 11, but countless more are still struggling to file claims.

The historic amount of Texans out of work — economists think the state's unemployment rate could exceed 10% — left Eaves and her husband among the many people having trouble filing unemployment claims and getting on the utility relief list to prevent cutoffs. Eaves said the PUC's website didn't work. She called, too, but the wait was more than an hour, and she got disconnected before she could get through.

“I kept trying. But I gave up, like with the unemployment,” Eaves said.

People who haven’t been able to file claims can still get in the utility relief program, but they have 30 days to get through to the TWC or they will be unenrolled from PUC's program and will have to apply again.

If customers are denied a payment plan or experience other problems, they can reach out to the customer protection division of the Public Utilities Commission to find a solution. If problems remain or the customer is dissatisfied, the person can issue a formal complaint, leading to an investigation and possible fines or a settlement.

Barlow said the PUC has since added a call-back feature and 30 new employees to work in the call center.

“Those that are living in small towns and rural areas are the ones that are less protected,” said Kaiba White, energy policy and outreach specialist with consumer group Public Citizen’s Texas office. “State-level policy is important because there are simply too many entities to rely on for individuals to come with each policy.”

The PUC has already suspended water and sewage disconnections in the regions it regulates. A spokesperson for the Texas Railroad Commission said all 31 natural gas utilities that it regulates have halted disconnections.

Advocates from Public Citizen and the environmental organization Sierra Club have asked Gov. Greg Abbott for a statewide moratorium on disconnections to make sure there aren’t any gaps in the shut-off moratoriums — and to help people like the Eaveses, who shouldn’t have had their power turned off.

“Texans need security during this unprecedented crisis and reassurance that their basic needs, including access to water and electricity, will be met,” said Kaiba White, energy policy and outreach specialist in Public Citizen’s Texas Office. “In order to protect all Texans, Gov. Abbott needs to step up and issue this executive order to include municipally owned utilities and cooperatives.”

Abbott’s office did not reply to a request for comment this week.

For now, the Eaveses have solved their immediate financial woes. Eaves borrowed money from a relative to get the power turned back on. And the family received pandemic relief checks from the federal government Wednesday.

“I managed to pay two months of the bills. I did it immediately, at 10 o’clock in the morning,” Eaves said.

Her husband also got his unemployment payment Thursday. And she finally managed to enroll in the PUC’s relief program, which should prevent another disconnection.

Eaves said she’s thankful that she found a solution, but she is still concerned.

“I think if things remain the same, we only have enough to go through June,” she said. “I hope that by then more businesses are back up. I feel a little nervous, but generally I’m keeping the faith.”

Disclosure: The Sierra Club has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

"Texas utility regulators have programs to prevent shutoffs during the pandemic. But some Texans are falling through the cracks." was first published at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/04/18/texas-power-coronavirus/ by The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state.

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