The record cold weather in mid-February of 2021 has resulted in ballooning utility bills for low-income households. Showing up in people’s mailboxes and online, these electric and gas bills are (and will be) big — for families with no wiggle room in their budgets to pay
These families must now figure out a way to pay the bills and avoid a shut-off of their air conditioning and electricity, all because they did what anyone would do; they made sure their families were safe and warm when the thermometer dropped to record-low levels.
The arctic cold snap wasn’t anyone’s fault, but it was low-income families that faced this crisis with few options other than to expensively heat and power their homes — with the results showing up now in their high utility bills.
Know your rights and options
Legal Aid of Nebraska wants low-income utility customers to know they do, in fact, have rights and options to keep their electricity and air conditioning ON and get those high bills PAID.
Nebraska’s public and private utility companies hold broad authority over utility customers’ service, rates and disconnections. This broad authority, however, does not leave utility customers without rights prior to termination of service.
We want our clients to 1.) Know their rights when it comes to utilities, and 2.) Stand up for them!
Under Nebraska law, no utility company may disconnect service for nonpayment of past-due bills without first providing notice to any customer whose service is proposed to be terminated.
What you need to know when shut-off is threatened
The notice must also contain information including:
· the reason for the disconnection
· how to contact the utility company to address the notice to disconnect
· the right to a conference with the utility company prior to disconnection
· that disconnection may be postponed if the customer or resident has certain medical conditions
· that an installment payment plan may be arranged
· that low-income customers may qualify for utility bill payment assistance
Privately-owned gas utilities, like Black Hills Energy and Northwestern Energy, are regulated by the Public Service Commission. Due to the high bills from the February arctic cold, the Public Service Commission extended the moratorium on shut-offs for privately owned utilities through May 31.
If your utilities are not disconnected, but you are behind on your bills, the amount you owe is not forgiven. You will still have to pay your utility bills, even if disconnection is temporarily delayed or you are not disconnected because of the moratorium.
If you are behind on your utility bills, there is help available. COVID-19 utility assistance is available through the state, LIHEAP assistance is available through DHHS (low-income energy assistance program), and other non-profit agencies may be able to provide assistance. Also, publicly-owned electric utility companies, including OPPD, LES, and NPPD, have additional shut-off and payment policies, and their websites have information on other sources of help
Need additional help?
- For more information about utility assistance that is available, visit our website: https://www.legalaidofnebraska.org/how-we-help/resources/covid-19-coronavirus/housingcorona/utilities/
- Call for help through our COVID-19 Disaster Relief Hotline at 1-844-268-5627 or visit: https://www.lawhelpne.legalaidofnebraska.or
Jennifer Gaughan, Chief of Legal/Strategy, is the author of this article.