TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM) — Thousands of residential customers unable to pay their utility bills can expect some short-term relief.
The Public Utilities Commission of Texas approved an order Thursday suspending disconnections for water, electric and sewer services for at least the next six months, according to spokesman Andrew Barlow.
"The suspension of disconnections for non-payment and addition of residential customers to the COVID-19 Electricity Relief Program will end six months after implementation unless extended by the Commission," the order reads. "If the disaster declaration has not been lifted at the end of the six-month period, the COVID-19 Electricity Relief Program may be extended for an additional period based upon a reassessment of the need for the COVID-19 Electricity Relief Program by the Commission and based upon the status of the disaster declaration."
The COVID-19 Relief Program is available to residents who choose their own retail utility providers and qualify for the Low Income List Administrator (LILA).
Texans approved for unemployment benefits because of the pandemic are also eligible for the program.
"We can't have disconnects when people have been ordered not to work," said Commissioner Arthur D'Andrea. "I think it is the government's responsibility to make sure they have lights and water while they're sitting at home."
This month, customers who still pay their bills will see an extra fee of $0.33. That money will be used by the retail electric providers to offset costs.
"I thought this was a reasonable balance to try to address the needs of people losing their jobs with the needs of the market," said Deann Walker, the chairman of the Public Utilities Commission.
Under the program, anyone can request a deferred payment plan from their retail electric provider.
But customers will likely still be on the hook for outstanding payments in the long run.
Texas Legal Services Center Executive Director Karen Miller said while the order marks an important first step, more assistance is needed for low-income residents.
Last week, Miller's organization, along with other nonprofits across the state, filed a joint petition to the Public Utilities Commission calling for a halt on utility shutoffs.
"I think when the government is encouraging and in many cases ordering people to take shelter in place and stay in homes, it's imperative they have water and power," Miller said.
Miller emphasized that low-income customers who lost their jobs will need additional assistance long after the crisis ends.
"It's a hardship," Miller said. "I think we are still going to have to work very hard to address the long-term income insecurity issues people will face."
Residential customers seeking deferred payment plans must contact their utility providers to make arrangements.
Many retail utility providers have already created flexible policies for customers struggling to make ends meet during the outbreak.
TXU ENERGY — TXU Energy is offering payment flexibility and payment assistance for customers.
RELIANT ENERGY — Customers financially impacted by COVID-19 can seek payment extensions or payment deferral plans.
CONSTELLATION — Offering payment plans for customers in need.
4CHANGE ENERGY — Customers can seek information about payment extensions and additional assistance.
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