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Study reveals October disconnection surge

Special consumer protections and a ninefold expansion in utility bill assistance in 2020 helped keep disconnections low during widespread economic stress caused by the pandemic, with the exception of October. In October 2020, disconnections doubled as utilities lifted their ban on shut offs, according to a new Tufts University study.

Nearly 1 percent of all accounts were disconnected for non-payment in October 2020, twice the usual amount. Disconnection notices were sent to 3.4 percent of residential accounts each month in late 2020, and about 20 percent of accounts were charged late fees.

Consumers had to call their utility to activate special protections, but not everyone in need called, or there was miscommunication between the caller and the utility.

Study author Steve Cicala points out that the $80 million Utility Disconnection Avoidance Program later attempted to address such issues by using utility disconnection lists to automatically connect assistance with at-risk homes. Note: If you’re having trouble paying your utility bills, call your utility company to see what support is available.

“The findings show that while many avoided disconnection, there were pockets of elevated shut-offs,” said Julie Soderna, CUB’s General Counsel. “Even at a time of special consumer protections, the system wasn’t able to reach certain folks—and that should inform us about how to repair holes in our safety net.”

Cicala made these discoveries using monthly data on electricity disconnections in Illinois.

Last year, state regulators and consumer advocates negotiated protections for utility customers struggling to afford their bills. As part of those negotiations, the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) required public utilities to file monthly reports that illustrate economic stress among customers during the pandemic.

At the zip code level, utilities are reporting statistics such as the number of residential customers who are behind on their bills, disconnections for nonpayment and participation in programs that provide assistance to low-income households.

The study used this utility self-reported data in combination with zip code-level demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau.