Despite orders not to shut off utility customers with unpaid bills due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Eversource, United Illuminating and their related natural gas and water companies sued and secured wage garnishments for dozens of customers in 2020 and 2021, the Office of Consumer Counsel alleged.
In a filing on Friday afternoon, the Office of Consumer Counsel asked the Public Utility Regulatory Authority to investigate Connecticut’s two largest utility companies after both admitted to hiring outside counsel to seek judgments and wage garnishments against customers in 2020 and 2021 — even during the state’s moratorium on utility shutoffs from March 2020 to Sept. 2021.
“To learn that our utilities, and to the greatest extent United Illuminating, were pursuing judgments against consumers in court during the Covid-19 State of Emergency rather than directing them to the many assistance and relief programs available during this time is shocking,” said Interim Consumer Counsel Claire Coleman.
Coleman said that her office, PURA, the Attorney General, and many other stakeholders have worked diligently over the course of the pandemic to ensure that consumers facing financial hardship receive the assistance they need to keep the lights on and the heat running.
According to the Office of Consumer Counsel, Avangrid, the parent company of United Illuminating, Connecticut Natural Gas and Southern Connecticut Gas, reported that its subsidiaries had secured 263 judgments and 80 wage garnishments against their customers in 2020 and 2021.
In 2020 and 2021, Eversource companies reported securing 45 judgments and 13 wage garnishments against their customers, according to the counsel office.
Both companies reported those numbers by year, so it is unclear if any of the judgments or wage garnishments occurred during the moratorium, or if they occurred before the moratorium began in March 2020 or after it ended in September 2021.
But United Illuminating said in testimony filed with PURA that it did not believe the COVID-19 shut off moratorium included a moratorium on reporting customers with unpaid bills to a collection agency or legal collections firm.
United Illuminating reported that it secured 106 judgments and 28 wage garnishments against its Connecticut electric customers in 2020, compared to 297 judgments and 57 wage garnishment orders in 2019.
Eversource reported that it secured 44 judgments and 13 wage garnishments against its Connecticut electric customers in 2020, compared to 291 judgments and 117 wage garnishments in 2018.
Avangrid spokesperson Gage Frank said in a statement that United Illuminating, Connecticut Natural Gas and Southern Connecticut Gas were “some of the first utility companies in the region” to suspend utility shut offs because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As the pandemic continued, we helped customers take advantage of the numerous products, government assistance and services designed to help them pay for their energy use in a flexible and customer-friendly manner,” Frank said. “This includes options such as interest-free pandemic payment plans, suspension of late payment charges, and referrals to assistance programs.”
Frank said Avangrid is reviewing the petition from the Office of Consumer Counsel, and will await further action from PURA.
Eversource spokesperson Tricia Modifica said the company is also reviewing the petition. But Modifica said Eversource stopped “all collection activities,” including efforts to seek judgments against customers who owed money, on March 13, 2020 – when the shut off moratorium was declared.
Modifica said the Connecticut Superior Court issued 9 judgments for Eversource after that date – all of which were from cases initiated in 2016 or 2017. Modifica said judgments and wage garnishments are a last resort in working with customers who have overdue balances, and that obtaining a judgment can take years.
“We look forward to working with [the consumer counsel] and others so that everyone fully understands the facts, including that the non-payments at issue here occurred four years before the COVID pandemic,” Modifica said.
Eversource has a much larger presence in Connecticut than Avangrid does through its subsidiaries – with Eversource boasting 1.2 million electric customers, compared to United Illuminating, which serves 341,000 electric customers across 17 towns and cities in Fairfield and New Haven counties.
According to the consumer counsel office, the fact that Avangrid is smaller than Eversource but secured many more judgments and wage garnishments against its customers indicates that Avangrid was more aggressive in taking legal action against its customers in 2020 and 2021 than Eversource,
“[The office] is particularly concerned by these statistics knowing that Avangrid service areas include Connecticut communities with a high proportion of low-income households (e.g., New Haven, Bridgeport) facing the highest energy burden in the state, who were also hit the hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic both in health and economic terms,” the Office of Consumer Counsel said in its complaint to PURA.
United Illuminating said in testimony filed with PURA that the Avangrid companies refer customers to third-party collection agencies only when they have a balance of $2,500 or more, with 90 days or more of unpaid bills. Eversource said it may send residential electric customers to collections when they have an unpaid balance of $2,000 or more.
With shut offs back in place, utilities recoup unpaid bills
According to data filed with PURA, the amount of money owned by residential electric customers who don’t have a “hardship” designation that continues to protect them from being shut off has declined for both Eversource and United Illuminating since the shut off moratorium ended in September 2021.
When the shutoffs ended, Eversource reported it had $323.2 million in uncollected bills from non-hardship customers, including $149.8 million in bills that were overdue by two months or longer. In February, the company reported $246.4 million in overdue bills from non-hardship customers, including $90.4 million in bills overdue by two months or longer.
At the same time, the amount of overdue electric bills from customers that have “hardship” status has increased. For Eversource that increase was more than 20 percent – from a total of $148.5 million in September to $180.7 million in February. The amount from bills overdue by two months or longer has increased from $130.3 million to $154.5 million for hardship customers.
Hardship customers are still protected from shutoffs, since they still have the regular Winter program that protects those customers from being shut off between Nov. 1 and May 1 every year.
Customers who don’t have a hardship designation are not protected from shutoffs, and Eversource reported that it shut off 2,299 customers because of unpaid bills in January 2022. United Illuminating reported that it shut off 1,330 residential electric customers in the same month.
Editor's note: A previous version of the story incorrectly referred to Avangrid spokesperson Gage Frank as Frank Gage.