When Mercia Ordine lost her job last March, she quickly fell behind on the $200-a-month electric bills in her 600-square-foot, two-bedroom Fairfield apartment. Ordine is far from alone.
Electricity was expensive in Connecticut before the pandemic, and the poorest residents have always struggled to pay their bills. But the pandemic has caused a wider range of people to struggle with electric bills, said Brenda Watson, executive director of Operation Fuel.
The assistance program was created during the energy crisis of 1977 as a way to help low-income families who fell through the cracks of government assistance programs. It’s funded primarily by state government grants and by Eversource and United Illuminating customers donating through the “add a dollar” donation box on their bills.
“It’s a concern across all customer bands now, and I wouldn’t have said that 14 months ago,” Watson said. “But for the folks who are struggling alone, that tends to be people who are living in poverty.”
Operation Fuel has tried to stretch its limited funding, providing assistance to 700 additional households during the 2020 fiscal year than the year before — an increase of 13 percent — on a similar budget. Watson said the organization has also been giving out more grants for the maximum amount of $700.
According to Watson, any time a grant exceeds $500, it means the recipient has been struggling to afford energy, and will continue to struggle after paying down their balance.
In the case of Oridine, she was diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer last January. By March, COVID spread meant the loss of her job as a nanny for children with autism. She had also been driving for an “Uber for kids”-like ride-sharing service where she would drive children to school and doctors appointments – but that business dried up as well.
Ordine was one of the people who received a $700 grant from Operation Fuel this year.
“Where am I going to find a new job that lets me go for chemotherapy all the time and take weeks off at a time?” Ordine said. “You can’t find a job like that. I was more sick with anxiety than cancer alone.”
The combination of her cancer treatment, the shock of losing her job and the fear of catching COVID left Ordine too depressed to get out of bed for two months. She said she lost 40 pounds in that time.
Because neither of her jobs qualified Ordine for unemployment benefits, the bills and paperwork began piling up. There were the medical bills and paperwork to switch from Medicaid to Medicare. There were the student loans and financial aid applications for her 18-year old son, who just started college and has special needs, she said.
When she ran the air conditioner in the summer, the electric bills were nearly $300. Even with the unemployment assistance, she couldn’t keep up.
Financial assistance can’t meet the need
Electricity in Connecticut is expensive, and it was unaffordable for many even before COVID.
Only three of the lower 48 states had higher residential electric rates this January: Massachusetts, Rhode Island and California, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Connecticut also spent the third-most of any state on residential electricity per capita in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available.
While the mean household in Connecticut spends about 2 percent of its income on energy, the 201,146 households making less than 30 percent of the state median income [$37,865] spend six to seven times more, according to an October 2020 report by Vermont-based environmental consultant VEIC that was commissioned by Connecticut Green Bank.
The 238,018 households making from 30-60 percent of the median income are, on average, paying bills that are “unaffordable,” based on a rule of thumb that energy costs shouldn’t be more than six percent of income.
VEIC estimated that together, those households earning less than 60 percent of the median income – which account for nearly a third of the state – are spending $444 million more than they can afford on energy every year.
Compared to the need, the amount of assistance available is limited. In 2020, Operation Fuel distributed $2.5 million in grants to 6,164 households. The state Energy Assistance Program distributed $76.1 million of federal funds to 81,456 households in 2019.
“At some point, these utility bills are going to be due, and if all of the utility companies at the same time end their moratoriums, organizations like Operation Fuel are going to be overwhelmed with folks looking for assistance,” Watson said.
Solving issues of poverty is complex, but Watson said the state needs to ramp up efforts to weatherize homes, which can reduce the amount of energy people are using, and their electric bills. One major barrier is that many homes can’t be weatherized until they are remediated for materials like asbestos – and that is a major cost to homeowners and landlords.
Some landlords are small business owners, and they don’t have the available funds to address these remediation problems in the units they’re renting,” Watson said. “There are landlords who are responding to the energy issues appropriately, we have to figure out a way to support the most challenged customers and most challenged landlords.”
For some, energy costs are life and death concern
Drew Messore, founder of VetFuel – which works to remove barriers for Connecticut veterans coping with challenges ranging from housing to transportation to the court system – said energy and transportation costs are a life or death concern in Connecticut.
VetFuel started in response to a veteran who died by suicide after running out of gasoline on the way to a VA hospital appointment, he said. That is the real concern with high energy prices, Messore said, not just the impact on wallets, but on lives.
“You take away people’s liberty, you take away their ability to negotiate, you basically say, ‘This is what it is, and we better get something from you or we’re going to shut you off,’” Messore said. “You are shaming them, and you take away the ability to take care of themselves or their family, and ultimately the ability to change the situation in the long term.”
Messore said he has been hearing from veterans who feel like they have failed because they can’t afford their electric bills. Not being able to keep the lights on and keep their family warm makes them feel worthless. It also can make them hypervigilant because they have an “enemy” they can’t fight, he said.
Messore said he gets calls at all hours from veterans who are worried about being shut off. Some are several months behind on rent, and stimulus payments have gone to back rent or groceries.
“Thank God for Operation Fuel. Thank God for the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program. Thank God for all the other little programs that serve the immediate need,” Messore said.
For the people who are able to get assistance from Operation Fuel and other assistance programs, the money can make a major difference.
Danielle LaFrance owes Eversource $950 for unpaid electric bills in her one-bedroom apartment in New Britain.
LaFrance has been paralyzed from the chest down since a cyst on her spine injured her spinal cord in 2015. She receives about $600 a month in SSI payments from the federal government, which she stretches to pay for rent and other regular expenses, including a caregiver.
LaFrance said she paid her Eversource bill as best she could, but still ended up owing nearly $1,000. She said the company was sending her disconnection notices, trying to get her to set up a payment plan, and she was struggling to navigate the state assistance program.
“I did not know what I was going to do. Like do I not pay my rent this month and try to pay that down and just put myself into a deeper hole?” LaFrance said.
LaFrance saw a commercial for Operation Fuel, and when they agreed to pay $700 of her overdue bills, she said it was a huge relief.
For Mercia Ordine, who badly needs a knee surgery that she has been putting off for three years so that she can go back to work, among the stacks of paperwork she has for college, insurance and bills, she wants to add a stack for job applications.
Even with the surgery, Ordine said she doesn’t think she can go back to being a nanny. She’s getting too old and has too many health problems to keep up with kids, she said. She’d love to find a job as a bookkeeper, and she’s had plenty of practice with her stacks of paperwork.
“I love paperwork,” she said. “Each system I have been through, I learned a lot that can help people dealing with them.”