The $600 federal unemployment benefit has ended, a statewide eviction moratorium has expired and there’s uncertainty about the implementation of a federal moratorium. On top of that, Coloradans are starting to get shutoff notices from utilities.
Energy Outreach Colorado, which works with companies and public agencies to keep people’s power on, is seeing a spike in requests for help.
Most utilities in Colorado suspended shutting off power because of non-payment in recognition of the financial upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Many of them also tapped foundation money and collected contributions to help cash-strapped Coloradans. They are encouraging people behind on their bills to contact them to work out a payment plan.
While Gov. Jared Polis on Monday issued a 30-day extension of an executive order that suspends late and reconnection fees for utilities, he didn’t revive the moratorium on shutoffs that ended earlier this summer. Most utilities started sending out notices again in the past few weeks.
Energy Outreach Colorado, started by legislators in 1989 to provide assistance to low-income customers, is working with utilities and communities to spread the word that help with payments is available.
“Where we are right now versus last year is we have seen an increase of 40% in people who have asked for bill payment assistance,” said Denise Stepto, spokeswoman for the nonprofit organization.
“What is causing that, I can’t drill down into,” Stepto added. “I can’t say to you at this moment that it’s all COVID-related, but 40% is a pretty dramatic increase.”
The organization’s latest numbers show that it received 374 requests in June, compared to 202 requests in June 2019. It helped 15,337 households in the 2018-19 fiscal year and distributed $6.7 million in benefits. The average payment was $441.
Energy Outreach Colorado gets most of its money from donors. It receives some of the state’s share of mineral severance tax revenue. The Colorado General Assembly has also allocated $4.8 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to help it cover utility bills.
“In the wake of COVID-19, Coloradans are facing unemployment at unprecedented rates. This in turn, is creating ripple effects across the economy and putting many people’s basic needs at risk,” Sen. Zenzinger, D-Arvada, said in a statement Wednesday.
Stepto said the preference will be given to people who’ve been denied or are ineligible for other forms of assistance. Those could be people who aren’t drawing unemployment benefits or didn’t receive a federal stimulus check.
Another avenue for help is the federally financed Colorado Low-income Energy Assistance Program, but the program won’t take applications until Nov. 1.
Energy Outreach and other organizations are seeing their concerns about trouble with utility bills come to fruition.
“As we had feared, people were really facing a number of crisis situations. Many people who have never experienced the inability to pay bills have lost jobs or become underemployed,” Stepto said. “We were consistently seeing that the No. 1 concern was rent, the No. 2 was food. Then, the No. 3 was energy.”
The resumption of shutoff notices comes as the start of school and colder weather will increase the use of electricity, Stepto added. Energy Outreach is working with utilities to make sure the public knows that help is available. Xcel Energy-Colorado is including that information in notices it sends to customers.
The Colorado Public Utilities Commission has rules that utilities it oversees, including Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy, must follow before cutting a customer’s power. Among those are that a company must propose an installment payment plan to people who contact them about a shutoff notice. Customers have certain rights if someone in the house is seriously ill or has a medical emergency.
“Our goal is to work with our customers before they lose service. We collaborate with Energy Outreach Colorado to help those customers most in need of assistance,” Xcel Energy spokeswoman Michelle Aguayo said in an email.
Xcel Energy has mailed about 48,000 notices to residential customers and had disconnected about 20 customers as of last week. The company has 1.6 million customers in Colorado.
People struggling to make regular payments can call Xcel at 800-895-4999 immediately, Aguayo said. The company matched employees’ contributions to relief efforts and pledged to donate the first $1.5 million of more than $20 million in new corporate giving to COVID-19 relief in its eight-state territory.
Black Hills Energy, whose territory in Colorado includes Pueblo, said it would resume its standard process this week after having suspended disconnections. Company officials said they were informing customers of the change and offering payment plans.
Black Hills Energy said it has contributed a combined $67,000 to local relief funds across its service area as well as almost $57,000 to Energy Outreach. Customers can call 888-890-5554 or go to blackhillsenergy.com/COVID-CO.
United Power, an electric cooperative based in Brighton, ended its suspension of shutoffs in July, said Troy. Whitmore, head of government and regulatory affairs. The company has distributed a total of $185,000 to 1,017 members having trouble paying their electric bills.
For more information about Energy Outreach, call 1-866-432-8435 or go to Energy Outreach Colorado’s Bill Payment Assistance Program at https://www.energyoutreach.org/programs.
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