NJ utility moratorium may end soon — how to apply for payment help
In about 40 days, utility companies in New Jersey could have the green light to shut off your power, gas or water due to nonpayment.
That's when a moratorium on shutoffs, in place since March of last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, is set to expire.
So the state and utilities are trying to make residents aware of the numerous programs available for those who've fallen on hard times due to the health crisis or other reasons.
"We made sure that nobody's power was turned off, but we know that some New Jerseyans are now facing past-due bills and may not know that help is available," said Joseph Fiordaliso, president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities.
As of the end of 2020, utilities across the Garden State were owed close to $650 million in "overdue" payments from residential and commercial customers, according to the BPU. That figure was $330 million at the end of 2019, three and a half months before the pandemic took hold of New Jersey.
Since the pandemic began, the number of PSE&G customers considered "seriously delinquent" has doubled.
"COVID impacted folks that have probably never had issues paying their bills, have never even worried about paying their utility bill," Fred Daum, executive director of customer operations at PSE&G, told New Jersey 101.5.
With the moratorium in place, Daum said it's hard for utilities to determine whether a customer is behind on payments due to financial hardship or simply by choice. But when the moratorium ends, utilities will be free to cease services for customers who are behind on their bills.
"Don't wait, act now and let us help you," Daum said.
Daum noted that traditionally PSE&G doesn't initiate shutdown activity for a customer who's one or two months behind on payment. Instead, the utility sends so-called soft reminders to the account holders.
Those who do or do not qualify for utility assistance programs (detailed below) can request a Deferred Payment Agreement with their utility. According to the BPU, utilities are offering payment arrangements for up to 24 months with no money down until June 30, the same day the shutoff moratorium is scheduled to expire.
"We've never offered terms like this and we want to make sure customers are aware," Daum said.
When asked whether the moratorium could be extended once again, a spokesperson for Gov. Phil Murphy said his office is coordinating with legislative leadership on legislation that will determine which provisions and protocols put in place under the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency will remain in effect after that emergency ends.
"Details will be forthcoming," the spokesperson said.
June 30 is also the deadline this year for residents to sign up for the federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program that offers assistance on a first-come, first-serve basis. The program assists households at or below 200% of the federal poverty level ($52,400 for a family of four).
Individuals who earn above that threshold could benefit from the state-funded Payment Assistance for Gas and Electric program, which provides grants of up to $700 to customers with overdue balances. A family of four earning as much as $120,000 annually, for example, can qualify.
The Lifeline Utility Assistance Program provides annual grants to low-income seniors and the disabled.
Those who are experiencing a temporary financial crisis and may not qualify for state and federal programs can apply for assistance with the nonprofit NJ SHARES.
Contact reporter Dino Flammia at firstname.lastname@example.org.