Georgia’s senators are among a group urging for the next pandemic relief package to include more help for people struggling to pay their electric bills.
U.S. Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff signed onto a letter — with more than 40 other senators — to Senate leaders asking for more funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, a program that helps people pay their utility bills.
“Across the nation, utilities are reporting significant increases in the number of families falling behind on their utility bills,” the senators wrote. “The National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association estimates that 15 to 20 percent of residential customers are at least 60 days behind on their electric and natural gas bills.”
The group of senators says states have already allocated the extra funding for the program that came from the first pandemic relief bill, and they say states need another $10 billion. The $1.9 trillion relief plan President Joe Biden called for last month included $5 billion in energy and water bill assistance.
“LIHEAP assistance is an indispensable lifeline, helping to ensure that recipients do not have to choose between paying their energy bills and affording other necessities like food and medicine,” the senators wrote.
Earlier in the pandemic, Georgia received an extra $45 million for LIHEAP programs from the CARES Act.
The state sends LIHEAP funds to local agencies to distribute to people in need. There’s always high demand for the program, Jessica Loeding with the Georgia Department of Children and Family Services wrote in an email, but there’s been even higher demand during the pandemic, she said.
“We have seen agencies exhaust their funds much faster than previous years,” Loeding wrote.
Last year, many utilities, including Georgia Power and others around the state, stopped shutting off customers’ electricity as businesses closed and people began sheltering in place. Georgia Power’s disconnection moratorium ended last July. The company introduced a payment program for people to get caught back up on their bills – and it began disconnections again.
In December, more than 16,000 Georgia Power residential customers were disconnected for not paying their bills; nearly 12,000 were subsequently reconnected. Those numbers are comparable to pre-pandemic numbers, Georgia Power spokeswoman Allison Gregoire wrote in an email.
“These counts are cyclical and seasonal based on weather and a variety of other factors including holidays, shifting household expenses and more,” she wrote. “The company continues to closely track these numbers and currently, variations remain within normal ranges.”
Gregoire said Georgia Power has worked to connect customers with assistance programs, and it donates up to $1.5 million a year to the Salvation Army’s Project SHARE, a program that helps people with utilities, as well as other bills.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has extended a national eviction moratorium, there has not been a similar national approach to utility disconnections. Chandra Farley, just energy director at the Partnership for Southern Equity, said she would have liked to see one.
“People are struggling. People were struggling before COVID,” she said. “COVID has just exacerbated and amplified the inequities.”