With electric bills in the hundreds of dollars and overdue balances over one thousand, and another rate hike coming in July, digging out of electric debt can seem insurmountable. But there are options, the head of energy assistance program Operation Fuel said.
“It is not hopeless,” Operation Fuel Executive Director Brenda Watson said.
The best way to avoid shutoff is to call the utility company directly before they send a shutoff notice, Watson said. Both Eversource and United Illuminating offer payment plans that protect the customer from having their power turned off.
“They do not want to shut people off,” Watson said. “It’s quite costly to turn off or suspend someone’s utility – they don’t want to send someone out to turn you off, and then send them back out to turn you back on – they really do want to work with people.”
On top of a payment plan, there are options for financial assistance. Operation Fuel offers grants up to $500 to help Connecticut residents pay off their utility debt – including electric, gas, fuel and water. The grants are available to people making 75 percent of the state median income or less – currently about $48,000 for an individual and $94,000 for a family of four.
The program offers online applications, and customers can also apply by calling 2-1-1.
Operation Fuel temporarily stopped accepting applications for assistance after May 27, and will reopen applications in July. But there are other options for assistance from various state and federal programs, and calling 2-1-1 is a good way to find out what programs you could qualify for, Watson said.
“There’s often an assumption that, if I’m working, I don’t qualify – that I’m not struggling enough or I’m not poor enough,” Watson said. “That’s not true.”
“Perfect storm” leaves more people struggling to pay
Connecticut residents pay some of the highest average electric bills in the country, and it’s not unusual for people to not be able to afford their bills.
A 2020 report found that nearly a third of state residents were paying more than they could afford on energy every year – and that was before global disruptions to fuel markets that increased the average electric bill by $20 a month this January.
The issue is widespread, as 40,558 customers of the state’s largest electric utility, Eversource, are on payment plans with an average balance of nearly $2,000. And the company said over 790,000 customers owed money in April, according to filings with PURA.
Operation Fuel is seeing the impacts, as requests for assistance have spiked this year. In 2021, Operation Fuel gave out grants to about 6,000 households. It’s set to end the fiscal year in June having awarded grants to about 9,000, Watson said.
And since the moratorium on utility shut offs ended in September, Operation Fuel has seen a spike of 75 to 90 additional applications for assistance each week – about 25 to 30 percent, Watson said.
The applications have been for more money, too. And even with as high as heating oil prices have been this winter, electricity is still the bill people are asking for help with the most, Watson said.
“It’s really one of those things where the cost of living in our state, compounded with the energy rates and coming out of the pandemic – it’s the perfect storm for people who are already struggling with the cost of basic needs,” Watson said.
The requests are coming from a broader range of people as well. Operation Fuel was established by Gov. Ella Grasso amid the energy crisis of 1977 as a way to help people who were struggling to pay their bills, but made too much money to qualify for traditional government assistance.
Programs with lower income restrictions can punish people for being employed, which is why Operation Fuel serves customers making up to 75 percent of the state median income, Watson said. Just because people are working, doesn’t mean they aren’t still struggling, she said. After paying taxes and other staple costs like housing and food, an income of $94,000 a year will only get a family so far.
“We have seen an increase of people who would normally not ever apply for our program, but find themselves needing assistance for the first time,” Watson said. “Even going up to 75 percent [of the median income], we still see people who maybe exceed that by a few dollars, but are still struggling.”
While stressing that there are options for help, and that people should seek that help if they need it, Watson said there could be improvements to how Connecticut handles energy assistance.
Watson said social services in general hasn’t caught up with the digital age, and hasn’t embraced technology as a way to more efficiently serve people. There is coordination between various programs and utilities, but it isn’t progressing fast enough, she said.
There should be a single application where people can apply for every kind of assistance they need, whether it’s housing, food or energy, Watson said. They should be able to check the box for the assistance they need, and automatically apply for the assistance they qualify for. It would save a lot of time and money, two things people looking for help generally have in short supply, Watson said.
“It’s beyond time that state leaders make that change,” Watson said. “I’d love to see someone campaign on that, and live up to the campaign promise that they’re going to centralize these systems.”