COVID-19 Response: Helping Low-Income Households Maintain Access to Essential Utility Services

The Foundation has awarded a $150,000 grant to the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) — a thought leader on consumer protection policies — to help ensure low-income households maintain access to essential utility services like electricity, water, and telecommunications in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. NCLC is working with local organizations to secure more comprehensive financial protections that will keep the lights and water on for a growing number of households saddled with debt, once the current utility disconnection moratoria are lifted.

In order to stop the spread of COVID-19, communities are being asked to shelter-in-place. To do this, people need energy, water, phone service, and internet to participate in online education, consult with health care providers remotely, work from home if they have the option, and to follow other public health recommendations. Even before the current crisis, millions of low-income Americans already had utility services shut off every year; millions more who have recently lost their jobs could be vulnerable to service disconnections as well.

Cutting off people’s utility services at this moment would exacerbate the COVID-19 crisis. But while many utilities have temporarily suspended service disconnections, not all utilities have done so. In addition, moratoria vary in length and it is unclear how low-income households will be protected from shut-offs after moratoria are lifted. NCLC is developing plans for how utilities can offer customers additional flexibility and time to pay utility bills, and is working to make consumer protections more consistent across utilities and the different services they offer.

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