On the brink of the cold-weather months, more than 56,000 natural-gas customers in the Chicago area remain disconnected for lack of payment. That's up 36% from last year, putting pressure on utilities and local officials to get disconnected households back online before winter begins in earnest.
Peoples Gas and Nicor Inc. are offering new programs to help customers who are behind on their bills. In a pilot that began last month, Peoples has stopped shutting off customers as long as they pay 60% of their monthly bill. For two weeks last month, Nicor offered to reconnect customers who paid half of their outstanding debt and agreed to a payment plan for the rest. Some 1,400 took advantage of the offer.
With the souring economy making it increasingly difficult for people to pay their bills, consumer advocates say the programs are not enough.