Across Illinois, CUB takes seriously its mission to advocate for utility customers. (See a few examples of our success stories, and what CUB achieved last year.) That’s why the consumer group worked with ABC 7 Chicago and ComEd to keep the power on for a working mom who had fallen on hard times but wanted to pay her bills.
The mom, Veda Perez, had a good reason to keep the electricity running—she needed the refrigerator to keep her daughter’s diabetes medication cool.
Recently divorced, Veda had gotten a job and wanted to do the right thing by climbing out of a deep debt with ComEd. But, as ABC 7’s Leah Hope reported, Veda was on the verge of getting her power turned off, even in a late summer heat wave. ABC 7 told Veda’s story to CUB Director of Consumer Advocacy Sandra Marcelin-Reme on a recent Thursday, and Sandra started contacting ComEd on Veda’s behalf.
The very next day, after Veda’s story ran on TV and CUB exchanged multiple emails and calls with the utility, ComEd said it would not cut power to Veda’s home, as it was scheduled to do that day. But Veda’s work wasn’t over yet. CUB then connected her to the Percentage of Income Payment Plan, or PIPP, a cutting-edge assistance program that the consumer group fought for in Springfield. (Read more about PIPP below.)
It was a happy development for Veda, but CUB gets thousands of calls, emails, and letters a year, many from consumers all over Illinois who face similar dilemmas. So what are your options when the utility is threatening to turn off your power?
Know Your Rights: Under state law, a utility CANNOT shut off your power if the weather is forecast to be 95 degrees or above within 24 hours of the date of disconnection. (Of course, it doesn’t have to be 95 degrees for the heat to be unbearable in your home, but at least this is some protection!)
If getting disconnected would aggravate an illness of a member of your household, you may postpone disconnection for two consecutive 30-day periods, so long as you get a letter from your doctor, that letter is approved by the utility, and you stay current with a new payment arrangement the utility sets up. (If you’re already disconnected, the doctor’s notice must be submitted to the utility within 14 days of the disconnection.) One thing to remember: If you don’t keep current with the payment arrangement, the utility has the right to deny future requests for a medical waiver.
Note: If you do get a disconnection notice, don’t throw it in the trash! Take time to read the fine print on the back of the notice, which should spell out most of your rights in that situation.
Find out what funding is available: In Chicago, you should call the Community Economic Development Association (CEDA) of Cook County (1-800-571-2332) and find out A) If you qualify for any assistance now; and B) If you will qualify for future assistance. For example, on Sept. 3, seniors and people with disabilities could begin to apply for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which is federal funding to help people pay their utility bills (both gas and electric). On Oct. 1, households with children under 5 can apply, and on Nov. 1 all other households can seek funding. If you’re outside Cook County, call the Energy Assistance Hotline, 1-877-411-9276.
Funding is always running painfully short, but CUB has fought for more money and programs to be available. For example, ComEd is feeding $10 million a year for five years into a special hardship fund CUB and other consumer advocates pushed for in Springfield. CUB also pushed for the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) Reform Act, which created the the Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP). PIPP allows qualifying consumers to pay a percentage of their income and then receive a monthly grant of up to $150 ( $1,800 a year) towards their utility bill. Plus, every on-time payment lowers their overall debt.
Keep Talking: Don’t ever stop dialing up the utility, the ICC (1-800-524-0795) and consumer advocates like CUB (1-800-669-5556) to find out what your rights and options are. If you keep talking, you’re more likely to learn options available and you’ll show the utility that you’re making every effort to pay.
Don’t give up: Even if your power is turned off, it may open up new opportunities to get funding. So find out what your options are.
A final option is always to appeal, as Illinois’ own Mr. Lincoln once said, to the “better angels of our nature.” Of course utilities are businesses, but they’re also corporate citizens, and if a working mom wants to pay her bills and be a good cutomer, we should do everything to support that. In Veda Perez’s case, it looks like those “better angels” are alive and well!