Prove your humanity

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission says companies can’t turn off customers’ utilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is beyond argument that the provision of public utility service is necessary for the safety of the public,” PUC chair Gladys Brown Dutrieuille said in a news release. “This is especially the case under the current challenges that resulted in the proclamation of a pandemic emergency.”

The PUC’s order means utilities including electric, natural gas, water and telecommunications cannot be turned off if someone falls behind on their bills. It will last as long as Gov. Tom Wolf’s declaration of disaster. It does allow for terminations for safety reasons.

The move was welcomed by Pennsylvania’s acting consumer advocate Tanya McCloskey. She noted that as employers shut down during the pandemic, people could be laid off or have their hours cut. She said access to utility services will be critically important in the coming weeks, and the commission did the right thing.

“But we’d also like to see the utilities work with their customers that already had their service turned off to get that service restored promptly and to work with customers on paying their utility bills,” McCloskey said. “As we know many customers are going to have financial difficulty over the next several weeks.”

McCloskey said the Office of Consumer Advocate is encouraging people to contact their utilities, and urging utilities to work with customers on reasonable payment plans or direct them to services that can help.

Customers can also contact the Pennsylvania Office of Consumer Advocate.

The PUC also suspended “all door-to-door, in-person and public event sales activities” by competing electric and natural gas suppliers in light of social distancing recommendations during the pandemic. Those marketing activities, Dutrieuille said, are “not a necessity at this time, given the need to protect the public health and safety.”

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.