Gillibrand: Don’t Pull The Plug On People’s Utilities, In This Situation

April 17, 2020

From Senator Gillibrand:

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand joined a bicameral call urging Congress to put a nationwide moratorium on essential utility service disconnections as Americans are asked to stay home throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Losing access to basic utilities including electricity, water, heat, and internet adds to the economic burdens already felt during this tumultuous public health crisis. Utilities provide New Yorkers the ability to follow essential CDC guidelines and help stop the spread of COVID-19. Specifically, access to running water is essential for consistent hand washing, while electricity keeps refrigerators running, allowing families to preserve food and delay trips to the grocery store.

“We all have an essential role to play combatting the coronavirus pandemic,” said Senator Gillibrand. “As we ask people to stay home, wash their hands, and follow public health guidelines, we must ensure all Americans have uninterrupted access to critical utilities. We are in this together, and it is our duty as public officials to make these resources available for the public good.”

The utility shut-off moratorium would not only provide comfort and security for American families, but it would also begin to address the systemic issues driving utility burdens across the country. Newly unemployed Americans must pay bills while trying to stay healthy. Communities of color and rural, tribal, and low-income communities are especially impacted by utility insecurity. This moratorium would provide immediate relief and a sense of stability for vulnerable New Yorkers and families across the nation.

In the letter, Senator Gillibrand pushed for at least a six-month nationwide moratorium in order to provide a sufficient grace period for families to recover from unemployment and other coronavirus-related impacts. Additionally, the letter requests that all late fees and bill payments for low-income families be forgiven through the end of the grace period.

Full text of the letter is below:

The Honorable Nancy Pelosi
United States House of Representatives
U.S. Capitol, H-232
Washington, DC 20515

The Honorable Mitch McConnell
Majority Leader
United States Senate
U.S. Capitol, S-230
Washington, DC 20510

The Honorable Kevin McCarthy
Minority Leader
United States House of Representatives
U.S. Capitol, H-204
Washington, DC 20515

The Honorable Charles Schumer
Minority Leader
United States Senate
U.S. Capitol, S-221 Washington, DC 20510

Dear Speaker Pelosi, Leader McConnell, Leader McCarthy and Leader Schumer,

We write to request that Congress protects the most vulnerable Americans from the danger and insecurity that results from utility shut-offs by putting a nationwide moratorium on essential utility service disconnections until the COVID-19 pandemic threat has passed and the country’s economy has stabilized as part of the next COVID-19 package. A moratorium would provide important temporary relief during this COVID-19 crisis, but as we seek to recover from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to invest in addressing the systemic issues driving unjust utility burdens across America.

While the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act included important paycheck and eviction protection measures, it failed to ensure that families will continue to have access to the basic utility services—including electricity, water and wastewater, heating, telecommunications, and internet—essential to survive during this health crisis.

Utility services are especially critical for public health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Water service ensures that Americans can handwash and disinfect surfaces necessary to slow and stop the coronavirus outbreak. Electricity is necessary for families to turn on the lights and have refrigerated food to eat. Internet access is essential for many employees to be able to work from home and for children who are out of school to access educational resources. Millions working service jobs on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic are facing disconnection.

Utility insecurity is felt by low-wealth Americans, rural and tribal communities and people of color. Newly unemployed Americans are facing disconnection because of loss of income. Vulnerable elderly populations need electricity to run life-saving medical equipment, keep medications refrigerated, and keep their homes at livable temperatures. These are the communities that need congressional protections the most.

We applaud the many utilities and that have taken voluntary steps to prevent disconnections during this crisis. Many states have also issued orders to keep utility services connected.

For all of us to get through this together we need to have a national policy with clear standards that utilities can follow, and ensure that no family is left behind in the patchwork of policies. The federal government should provide utilities with support for operations as well as customers, especially in light of declining utility revenues caused by unemployment, small business shutdowns, and rising poverty.

Congress cannot simply give low-wealth Americans a short-term reprieve on disconnections without ensuring them adequate time to recover from job losses and other coronavirus impacts. Families should not be condemned to a growing and unpayable utility burden that comes due at the end of this national emergency. We must ensure that these essential services are maintained when the COVID-19 pandemic threat has passed and the country’s economy has stabilized.

We ask that the nationwide moratorium last for at least six months beyond the end date of the national state of emergency to allow for a sufficient grace period for families to recover from unemployment and other coronavirus-related impacts. All families whose services have already been cut off should be safely reconnected. All late fees and bill payments for low-wealth families should be forgiven through the end of the grace period. Congress must provide federal support to make this possible.

The COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted the systemic problems of poverty and utility insecurity in the United States and its disparate impact on low-wealth communities and communities of color. When Congress enacts legislation to speed the economic recovery of our country, it should prioritize permanently increasing the economic security for low-wealth individuals. Priority should go to building infrastructure to support distributed renewable energy, safe water systems, and broadband access in rural areas.

Now is the time for our country to provide relief for the communities that are being most harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic. We look forward to working with you to find a workable solution for all families in this difficult time.