The Texas Public Utility Commission announced it would shorten the moratorium protecting low-income and unemployed Texans from utility shutoffs. The COVID-19 Emergency Relief Plan went into effect in March and initially provided protection from electric and water shutoffs for six months.
However, the PUC latest ruling stated the moratorium would expire on July 17 – less than four months after it began.
In a statement, PUC chairman DeAnn Walker said, “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.”
Further, Andrew Barlow, spokesman for the PUC, added that allowing the suspension to last the full six months would cause financial issues for electricity providers. “If we don’t take effective measures to maintain the strength of that retail competition marketplace, a lot of companies could go belly up,” he said.
The PUC also agreed to earlier expiration dates for several additional assistance measures, including ban on water and sewage disconnections and a late fee waiver program for utility customers.
This decision was announced even as many Texas consumers continue to worry about paying utility bills. According to KXAN, between 10,000 and 13,000 residential utility customers contact the PUC every day due to an inability to pay for electricity and water bills.
The shortening of the PUC’s moratorium also does not account for the difficulties many Texans have reported they’ve experienced trying to sign up for the relief plan.
One Santa Fe resident told the Texas Tribune that she attempted to sing up for the PUC’s moratorium relief plan after she and her husband were laid off, but wasn’t able to reach a representative by phone.
“I spent all of our money on food,” said Carly Eaves, a mother of three. “That’s all that I could do. For a family of five with no income, we didn’t have enough for anything else.”
Walker, the chairman of the PUC, acknowledged many customers have complained about the difficulty of opting in to the moratorium. Some have said they’ve spent hours on hold, while others have not been able to reach a representative at all. Many Texans even reported their utilities were cut off despite signing up for the PUC’s relief plan.
Some Texas utilities and electricity providers have offered their own assistance programs to aid consumers impacted by COVID-19.
In Austin, municipally-owned Austin Energy is participating in a $46 million program to support customers with bill payments through the end of September. “Austin Energy is part of this community and we must do everything we can to reduce costs for customers who are helping our community by staying home,” said Jackie Sergeant, the utility’s general manager. “We’re also making sure those who have suffered a loss of income during this unprecedented crisis can come to us for additional utility bill assistance.”
TXU Energy, which serves over 2 million customers across the Lone Star State, pledged to waive late fees and extend payment due dates during the pandemic.
Many providers are also waiving late fees and offering deferred payment plans – which allow consumers to defer balances across five smaller payment installments. To learn more about how electric providers have responded to COVID-19, see our provider response guide.