Angela Haislip begged the power company not to cut off service to her elderly mother and stepfather, both stroke victims who depend on oxygen machines and nebulizers to breathe.
In more than 20 years, her parents had “never, ever, ever missed a payment” to the Halifax Electric Membership Corporation, the power co-operative that serves rural Warren County, North Carolina, she said. Haislip’s 70-year-old mother had actually overpaid last year by so much, she built up enough credit that she hadn’t had to pay for the first two months of 2020.
But amid the chaos of the novel coronavirus pandemic, her mother fell behind.
Haislip’s 61-year-old stepfather only recently moved back into the couple’s mobile home after spending time in a nursing home recovering from a stroke. His disability checks were still being sent to the home, and Haislip, who is unemployed, didn’t have the $303 owed on the account.
She called the utility and promised to “give them my whole stimulus check to pay the bill” if they’d only give her a few more days. She lined up a family friend to loan them the money once the friend’s paycheck went through.
“I even told them they were stroke victims, and the lady on the phone pretty much called me a liar,” said Haislip, 46, choking back tears. “It’s heartbreaking. It seems like there’s no trust in the world. People don’t care like they used to.”
On March 23, the utility sent a notice warning that service would be shut off in four days. At the couple’s mobile home, which is 14 feet by 80 feet, the lights went out at 10 a.m. last Friday.
“They still kicked them to the curb like they were nothing,” Haislip said. “It’s all about money to them. They don’t care who dies during this.”
Brady Martin, a spokesperson for the Halifax Electric Membership Corporation, said the utility serves fewer than 11,000 people, making it one of the state’s smallest co-ops, and it operates on thin margins. The utility’s board was waiting for the state to guarantee its lost revenue before agreeing to halt suspensions altogether, but said it was negotiating deals with hard-up members in the meantime.
Haislip didn’t show power of attorney, Martin said, so the utility did not even register her claims as coming from the account holder.
“If one person doesn’t pay, other members have to make up the difference. That’s the way rural electric co-ops work,” Martin said Tuesday. “On Friday, which was our cut-off day, we had several people cut off, but several people were not because they fulfilled the commitment or at least made some attempt to contact us.”
Millions of Americans have been temporarily spared this routine hardship this month as confirmed cases of COVID-19 spread to all 50 states. Major utilities and regulators in more than half of the country have halted disconnections for nonpayment, providing relief to cash-strapped families who’ve had to choose between paying bills or buying food and medicine as an unprecedented 3.3 million Americans are now jobless.
But those protections have not been granted to everyone. There are 42 million Americans who rely on rural electricity co-ops ― small, member-owned utilities like the one that provides power for Haislip’s mother and stepfather ― that fall largely outside the bounds of corporate credos and state regulatory agencies, experts say. It’s an example of the gap in relief efforts that threatens some of the most vulnerable people during the COVID-19 crisis.
In a March 19 order, the North Carolina Utilities Commission directed power and gas companies in the state to maintain service and waive reconnection fees during the pandemic. But the Halifax Electric Membership Corporation, like most rural co-ops, doesn’t fall under the commission’s jurisdiction. It is one of only two co-ops left in the state to refuse to stop shutoffs.
‘It’s The Norm’
The regulatory hole is there by design. In theory, it’s a more democratic form of oversight. Ratepayers vote for the board members who govern rural co-ops, providing a direct process to hold the utility accountable. Utilities commissions, by contrast, are there for the majority of ratepayers like Haislip, whose home is in a county where Duke Energy, the $61 billion investor-owned giant, enjoys a regulated monopoly.
“It’s not atypical for co-ops not to be regulated by utilities commissions, it’s the norm,” said David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, a utility watchdog.
Co-ops sprang up in the 1930s, aided by federal funding from New Deal programs to electrify rural parts of the country, especially in the Southeast, where profiteering power providers couldn’t justify the investment. The United States hasn’t faced a pandemic like this since 1918, when the flu killed roughly 675,000 Americans.
The country’s piecemeal approach to regulating electricity makes it difficult even to know how many Americans don’t have power or risk losing it during the pandemic.
One in three U.S. households reported struggling to keep up with electricity and heating bills in 2015, the last year the federal Energy Information Administration polled residential energy consumers. More than 18.4 million U.S. households ― roughly 15% of the total population ― received notices threatening to shut off utility service for nonpayment in the first three months of 2017, the most recent year the Census Bureau conducted the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s American Housing Survey. Of those, 1.2 million households had their service shut off.
Even now, a promise to maintain power to households behind on bills is no guarantee. Utility giant FirstEnergy Corp. has left hundreds of households whose power had already been cut before the pandemic without electricity this month. It has said it will restore service only if customers call and agree to pay a reconnection fee added to future bills. FirstEnergy said this was out of concern that automatically restoring power could be a fire hazard if, for example, a stove or iron was left on before the power was cut.
‘The Need At The National Level Is Profound’
COVID-19 has yet to fully trickle from cities into the countryside. But there’s a cruel economic logic for rural co-ops refusing to give troubled ratepayers a break in a national emergency. Finance departments at co-ops operate with far less wiggle room than large, for-profit utilities, which can more easily borrow money to float the cost of maintaining service to accounts that aren’t paying.
“A lot of times, municipal or co-op utilities don’t have that short-term access to capital and payment is cash flow to them,” said John Howat, a senior energy analyst at the National Consumer Law Center.
Some states have forced co-ops to heed state regulators’ authority. The Mississippi Public Service Commission explicitly cited the state’s attorney general to expand its powers to cover utilities “not ordinarily within its regulatory jurisdiction.”
Martin said Halifax is waiting for North Carolina officials to make a similar move, which would clear the way for the state to help the co-op recoup some of its losses.
Is your electricity, water, gas or heating turned off or at risk of shutoff amid the coronavirus pandemic? I want to tell your story and will handle your case with care and discretion. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last Thursday, environmental and civil rights advocates sent a letter to North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein urging him to do so. On Friday, Stein called on unregulated utilities, including the state’s 26 co-ops, to abide the Utilities Commission’s order. By Monday afternoon, 24 of the state’s co-ops adopted moratoriums on disconnections, and 18 of those suspended fees for late payments, according to a tally by Appalachian Voices, an environmental nonprofit based in the state.
After this story published on Tuesday, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced an executive order barring all utilities from suspending services for nonpayment for the next 60 days.
But the problem persisted elsewhere in the region. Appalachian Voices started surveying the 154 local power companies that distribute electricity generated by the federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority, and found that many ― possibly a majority ― had yet to halt disconnections as of Friday.
Howat said the disparity that exists even within states themselves shows why stronger federal protections are overdue.
“The need at the national level is profound,” he said.
“They still kicked them to the curb like they were nothing. It’s all about money to them. They don’t care who dies during this.”
One of the few levers federal policymakers can pull is the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program ― a fund that the Department of Health and Human Services doles out in grants to pay for utility bills and home weatherization. President Donald Trump last month proposed diverting $37 million from the program’s budget to fund the federal response to the novel coronavirus outbreak. Instead, Congress added $900 million to the program’s budget as part of the $2 trillion emergency relief bill it passed last week.
Lawmakers could also have added new conditions to LIHEAP funding, Howat said, but if that came up in negotiations, it didn’t end up in the final version of the legislation.
“One can imagine somewhere in the vendor agreement standards that if you’re going to receive LIHEAP dollars, you have to offer reconnection provisions or deferred payment agreement terms that really work for low-income households,” he said. “That is one area that’s untapped right now.”
On Monday, Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) proposed placing a national moratorium on utility shutoffs and waiving all late fees. But it’s difficult to imagine that bill passing without wider support in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Haislip, for her part, has spent at least $150 since Friday on gas to refill a generator borrowed from a friend and drive back and forth between her house in Norlina, North Carolina, and her parents’ mobile home in Warrenton, roughly 20 minutes away. Her parents’ nurse, covered by Medicaid, stopped coming out of concern that she wouldn’t be able to wash her hands if the trailer lacked electricity to run water pumps, which would put her at greater risk of exposure to COVID-19.
“There’s no way for them to stay clean, so she’s taken off until the electricity’s resolved,” Haislip said. “I don’t blame her. I can see why she wouldn’t want to put herself at risk.”
That left Haislip as her parents’ only lifeline to food, water, electricity and medical care, making it impossible to maintain the social distance doctors recommend to lower the chances of infecting elderly relatives, who are most at risk from the disease’s deadliest effects.
“With me having to go in and go out to the grocery stores and so on, I’m taking that chance of carrying it back to them,” she said. “It’s extremely stressful and hard.”
On Monday afternoon, she checked the mail and found another notice from Halifax: Pay $622.47 by April 2, or “your account will be charged a $25.00 cut-off charge and will be subject to disconnection.”
UPDATE: April 14 ― Shortly after this story was published, readers contacted Haislip to offer help paying the bill. Her parents’ power was turned back on.
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