Millions of U.S. residents behind on bills are at risk of having their electricity, heat and ability to stir up a hot meal cut off on December 22 by private utility companies, just a day after the solstice heralds the colder states’ descent into true winter’s chill. During the early months of the pandemic, 34 states issued power shutoff moratoria, protecting residents facing economic hardship from having their lights and water shut off due to a late utility payment. As of December 2021, 32 of those states have let those protections expire.
New York and New Jersey, where elected officials have extended deadlines numerous times, are the holdouts. But each state’s moratorium is set to lapse before the end of the year, just when ratepayers are more behind in payments than ever before: As of November 2021, ratepayers in the Empire State alone owed a whopping $2 billion to energy giants such as National Grid and Con Edison.
The looming power shutoffs come just as public health officials warn that the newest and most infectious COVID-19 variant has been detected in the majority of U.S. states. According to a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, earlier utility shutoff moratoriums reduced infections by more than 4 percent, and mortality rates by more than 7 percent. Had Congress implemented a nationwide moratorium on utility shutoffs between March and November of 2020, COVID-related deaths could have been reduced by nearly 15 percent.
Amber Johnson is the organizing and training director at the New York Energy Democracy Alliance (NYEDA). She says defaulting on utility payments and accruing overdue balances, known as arrearage, is much more common than people realize.