ALBANY — Tens of thousands of New York households are at risk of having their utility services disconnected because of delinquent accounts, consumer advocates say.

Lawmakers passed a measure in May 2020 that blocked utility companies from disconnecting service to customers who could trace their income loss to the coronavirus health emergency.

But the moratorium on disconnections for electricity, broadband internet, gas and water service expired two weeks ago, leaving households that are in arrears on their payments facing shutoffs.

"There are 1.5 million households and a substantial number of small businesses that are in danger of being shut off now," said Richard Berkley, director of the Public Utility Law Project, a consumer advocacy group that monitors utility rate cases and other related issues.

Consumers can now extend their protections from being shut off for up to 180 days, but they need to contact their utility company and indicate they are unable to pay their bills because of loss of income from the pandemic.

Berkley said PULP and the New York chapter of AARP have been trying to spread the word about the mechanism for preventing shutoffs through self-certification with reports to the utility companies.

If companies are hesitant to agree to keeping services on, PULP suggests that consumers call state regulators to lodge a complaint.

"If the utility refuses to honor a request to self-certify, call the New York Department of Public Service’s complaint line at 1-800-342-3377 and request they order the utility to honor the grace period and issue an affordable deferred payment agreement," PULP said.

The sums owed by New Yorkers to utility companies soared 97% from February 2020 through last month, with the firms now owed $1.4 billion, according to an analysis by PULP.

Households served by National Grid and NYSEG, two major utility companies in upstate New York, have been part of that surge in arrears, with sums owed climbing 85% and 86% respectively in that period, PULP reported.

"To put it in perspective, we're more than $700 million in arrears deeper than we were at the worst part of the Great Recession," Berkley said.

James Denn, spokesman for the state Public Service Commission, noted the 180-day extensions for those who self-certify run will run out Dec. 21.

Customers would get 180 days of protection if they had self-certified June 24, the day the moratorium was lifted, Denn said. But if they wait until Dec. 20 to self-certify, they would get only one day of protection from shutoff, he emphasized.

State officials say utilities can try to recover arrears in several ways, including through rate cases. An arrears forgiveness program that could assist low-income New Yorkers is also expected to emerge.

A federal program administered by the state, the Emergency Rental and Utility Assistance Program, has funding to cover up to 12 months of back rent and utility arrears to eligible households.

The Public Service Commission also points out that utilities are barred from disconnecting service to any residential customer for nonpayment of bills during a two-week period encompassing Christmas and New Year's Day.

There are also additional cold weather protections restricting shutoffs of power and gas service.

Berkley said he would like to see more aggressive efforts made by state agencies to alert utility customers of the ways they may qualify for assistance and avoid having services turned off because they are behind on their bills.

Such terminations can often be "devastating" to those households, he said.

"Fortunately we have the tools to address the crisis," Berkley said. "But that means everybody has to start pulling together, and make it happen."

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhinews.com

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