The Alabama Public Service Commission Should Suspend Disconnections and Late Fees During COVID-19 Pandemic

Amid the devastation and heartbreak caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Alabama Public Service Commission (PSC) has a golden opportunity to do something truly positive. Without delay, the PSC should suspend disconnections and late fees across the entire state. And the reason is simple: It’s the right thing to do.

Many utilities have taken action voluntarily and we applaud those utilities for acting to protect consumers. Even if some of them like Alabama Power had to be dragged kicking and screaming…

Disappointingly, there are still many utilities in Alabama disconnecting customers during a global pandemic. Voluntary commitments are better than nothing, however, they are not a substitute for a legally binding order that gives customers recourse if a utility does not comply. 

Mississippi has already acted. Alabama should do the same. Not tomorrow. Not next week. But right now.

And if the PSC won’t do it, Governor Ivey must step in for the good of every Alabamian.

 

What Are Disconnections, Anyway?

For those unfamiliar with the term, a disconnection is pretty much what it sounds like. If you don’t pay your utility bill, your service typically gets disconnected. It’s as simple as that. 

But we’re not living in normal times. And in Mississippi, the PSC has taken laudable steps to protect their citizens.

Not so in Alabama.

 

Staying Home

On April 3rd, Governor Kay Ivey issued a statewide stay-at-home order that effectively shut Alabama down. Businesses were shuttered, non-essential services stopped, and millions of people immediately saw drastic changes to their everyday lives.

Issuing the order was the right thing to do, but the order came with some negative side effects. In order to beat this coronavirus, we all have to do our part – including social distancing. But for many Alabamians, staying home means missing out on a paycheck (or two or three). Not to mention the economic fallout may be with us for quite some time.

 

Paying the Bills

For many in Alabama, missing a paycheck or two can have profound consequences. After all, how long would you be able to pay for groceries and your utility bill without a steady paycheck?

Here’s the thing. If you can’t go to work, you might not have money to pay your bills. Across Alabama, we’re hearing the same story. It’s not that people want to stay home and miss work. They have to stay home – because it’s the law, because they cannot work, and because they’re trying to do their part. And because they’re obeying the law, they may not be able to work or pay their utility bills.

So why are some utility companies still shutting off people’s services right now? It’s wrong. You know it. We know it. Everyone knows it.

And the Alabama PSC needs to do something about it. If the PSC believes it cannot act because of limitations in Alabama law, it is morally obligated to air those concerns publicly. We cannot stand by and watch Alabamians suffer because of a technicality or a loophole.

 

Mississippi is Protecting Consumers

On March 15, the Mississippi PSC temporarily suspended disconnections for 60 days. The restriction applied to all water, sewer, electricity and gas services it regulated. Eleven days later, they suspended online convenience fees as well.

Not satisfied, the Mississippi’s PSC went even further by asking the Mississippi Attorney General for guidance on whether it had the authority to stop disconnections for all utilities in the state, even the municipal utilities and electric cooperatives it didn’t normally regulate. 

Bravo, Mississippi! That’s leadership. 

Now it’s time for the Alabama PSC to follow suit.

 

An Unacceptable Delay

On March 18th, Energy Alabama joined with 12 organizations calling on the PSC to issue an order suspending disconnections across the state. In Alabama, only two electric and gas utilities are normally regulated by the PSC, Alabama Power and Spire. But we called on the PSC to suspend disconnections and late fees for all utilities statewide and if it couldn’t act, we asked it to clarify what legal obstacles were present. Alabamians deserve answers and actions.

Since then, the PSC has failed to act. Since then, the PSC has failed to respond. Enough. Now is the time to do what’s right. We’ve contacted every utility in Alabama, and there are still many utilities cutting people off during this time of fear and uncertainty.

That is unacceptable.

Act now, Commissioners. You have the ability to offer much-needed relief to the people of Alabama. We trust you want to do the right thing.

Energy Alabama and Gasp Appreciate Alabama Power’s Belabored Decision Not to Disconnect Service or Charge Late Fees During COVID-19 Crisis

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (March 19, 2020) — On Friday, March 13, Governor Kay Ivey declared a State of Emergency as the COVID-19 pandemic made its way to Alabama. That evening, in response to this crisis, Gasp and Energy Alabama called for Alabama Power, the largest utility in the state, to put a moratorium on service disconnections and late fees until at least May 1. By last weekend, most investor-owned utilities across the country had made meaningful moves to suspend shutoffs.

Unfortunately, Alabama Power was unwilling to issue a full-throated public statement or even a clear announcement on its website about its intentions. Language matters. Instead of decisive language, Alabama Power made ambiguous statements claiming they had “no plans” to disconnect service “for those impacted by COVID-19” and, later, “customers financially affected.” 

We continued to take the company to task this week. We wrote a letter to the Public Service Commission, along with 12 other organizations, asking it to issue an emergency order suspending shutoffs and the accrual of late fees for all regulated electric, gas, water, and telecommunication utilities for all customers. 

Yesterday, it appears Alabama Power agreed to the terms we set for the people of Alabama: no disconnections, no late fees. They published an article on their company-owned website, Alabama News Center, stating that “Alabama Power has pledged not to disconnect customers or charge late fees for those affected* by the COVID-19 crisis.”

This afternoon at 4:35 p.m. Central Daylight Time, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson posted to Twitter confirming that pledge and, perhaps, going even further. He said Alabama Power, Mobile Area Water & Sewer System, and Spire “will suspend all cutoffs of service for people who cannot pay their bills during #COVID19.”

It does appear that customers in jeopardy of missing a payment must still contact Alabama Power’s customer service line. On their company-owned news website, they say “customers that need our help to let us know by contacting Customer Service at alabamapower.com or 1-800-245-2244.” We still believe this is an unnecessary step and it should be removed.

We further believe Alabama Power should update its corporate website homepage to reflect the straightforward text of today’s announcement: that the company will not shut off any customers and will not charge any late fees until after the COVID-19 crisis.

This was never a political issue. Asking the largest utility company in the State of Alabama to be super clear about its intentions was and is justified to protect basic human needs during this pandemic. Calling for the Alabama Public Service Commission to issue an emergency order suspending shutoffs and late fees for ALL utilities (electric, water, sewer, telecommunication) under its jurisdiction  was and is essential to protect all Alabamians. 

Gasp and Energy Alabama are appreciative of the thousands of dedicated Alabama Power employees still going into work, day in and day out, to keep the lights on. The company would be better off if its C-suite were as reliable and clear-eyed as their workers.

*This is not just a public health crisis. It’s also an economic and social crisis. Everyone is affected.