AUSTIN, Texas (CBSDFW.COM) - Darkness could come sooner than expected for some Texans.
In a public meeting Tuesday, the Public Utility Commission of Texas shortened the moratorium on certain utility shutoffs.
"As the world deals with an unprecedented array of challenges, we are working closely with industry participants, consumer advocates, and other state agencies to ensure we are taking the steps necessary to assist those customers impacted the hardest by the pandemic," said Chairman DeAnn Walker.
As part of the Electricity Relief Program, retail electric providers could not disconnect service for low-income residents for six months, according to an order previously passed by the commission on March 26.
But last Friday, commissioners moved up that deadline to July 17.
"If we don't take effective measures to maintain the strength of that retail competition marketplace, a lot of companies could go belly up," said Andrew Barlow, a PUC spokesman.
-May 15: end date for late fee waivers for residential customers of retail electric providers in areas where customers choose their own providers.
-May 15: end date on suspensions for disconnections for customers of "vertically-integrated utilities outside of areas of the state open to competition" (i.e. Entergy, El Paso Electric, SPS and SWEPCO).
-May 15: end date on suspensions for disconnections for customers of water and sewer utilities regulated by the PUC.
Alanna Autler: "What would you say to a consumer who can't pay their bill and is banking on a six-month suspension?"
Andrew Barlow: "The thing I would encourage them to do is essentially stay tuned."
Barlow said the PUC can always revise the order in the future.
In the meantime, he advised customers to request payment assistance from their own providers and file for unemployment with the Texas Workforce Commission if necessary.
But some consumer advocates are pushing to extend the moratoriums.
"With millions of requests for unemployment, it's going to be much harder for consumers affected by job loss to get this safety in their utility bills," said Bay Scoggin, of the Texas Public Interest Research Group.
Scoggin also argued that the program itself should be expanded.
The Electricity Relief Program only covers certain low-income residents who are receiving SNAP benefits, Medicaid or unemployment insurance.
Even in those situations, people must still opt into the program.
"The more protections for consumers, the better off the state," Scoggin said.
Some utility providers are offering their own relief programs including late fee waivers and deferred payment plans. Customers facing financial hardship should contact their provider immediately.
To offset the cost of the relief program to retail electric providers, the PUC approved to add a fee of roughly 33 cents to consumers' monthly bills.
for more features.