Protections for utility customers enacted as part of the coronavirus pandemic response will soon end, and the electric company plans to automatically enroll qualified customers in a monthly payment plan so they can get caught up with their bills.
Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) announced Sept. 1 that it would “auto-enroll eligible customers in new extended payment arrangements” by the end of this month (September).
PG&E noted that this auto-enrollment comes with the end of the “service-disconnection moratorium” that was put in back in May 2020, during the height of the pandemic scare, and designed to help customers to manage their bills, the company said in a news release. The party, as they say, is apparently over.
“Residential and small business customers with a PG&E bill at least 60 days past due,” the release said, “will automatically be enrolled over the next few weeks starting with their September bill.”
Figuring out the payment plan is a complicated math problem. “The monthly payment plan amount for residential customers will be their outstanding balance equally divided over 24 months. For example, if a residential customer owes $1,200 the payment arrangement would be $50 a month. Payment installations for small business customers will be calculated based on no more than 10% of their average bill (5% for customers in disadvantaged communities) over the past 24 months.”
Reraders shouldn’t fret, PG&E is here to help. “We are here to help customers during these times of increasing financial hardships. We want as many customers who are eligible to take advantage of these programs,” said Marlene Santos, PG&E executive vice president and chief customer officer. “Even as COVID-19 customer protections come to an end, our support won’t. The new payment plans were created to assist customers pay down their past-due balance over time and protect them from disconnection of service due to non-payment.”
Customers can sign-in to their online PG&E account to see what their monthly payments would be. It will also be listed on monthly energy statements under the “Account Summary” section.
PG&E spokesman Mark Messen said the programs apply to PG&E’s gas and electric customers, which would blanket almost all of Northern California but excludes much of SLO County.
SLO County lies at the northern edge of SoCal Gas Co.’s service area, with areas north of here where PG&E picks up the gas business too. The company dominates both energy sources in most of Northern California, servicing more than 16 million people across 70,000 square miles.
But all of the incorporated cities in SLO County are signed up to Central Coast Community Energy (3CE), the relatively new-fangled business model designed to promote the use of sustainable, emissions-free energy, and acting as a middle man between the power producers and the customers.
Though electricity is coming through 3CE, PG&E still has a role in transmission and distribution systems, and provides meter reading, customer service and maintenance services and billing, according to Mesesan. The auto-enrollment in a payment plan applies to anyone who is 60 days past due on their bills.
Who isn’t eligible? Mesesan said, “Net energy metered customers; customers with levelized billing [enrolled in Budget Billing]; customers enrolled in existing payment plans; customers participating in the Arrearage Management Plan [AMP will not be auto-enrolled in the plan]. However, PG&E will continue to proactively reach out and offer support to customers who are not eligible for the new extended payment plans.”
The company’s payment plan is designed to help people who’ve fallen behind during the pandemic. “This new payment plan was created to help our customers pay down their past-due balance over time,” Mesesan said, “protecting them from disconnection of service [gas and/or electric] when the shut-off moratorium ends on Sept. 30. This includes PG&E’s customers who are members of CCAs.”
The payment plans are charged on top of a person’s monthly service bills.
Automatic enrollment in the new payment plan will not change enrollment in other financial assistance programs, PG&E said. They offer several for those struggling to pay their bills, they are:
• Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) offers up to $1,000 to pay eligible household energy costs;
• Relief for Energy Assistance through Community Help (REACH) Program offers 1-time financial help to qualified customers with past-due bills;
• Arrearage Management Plans (AMP) offers up to $8,000 in unpaid balance forgiveness, if a customer is enrolled in the California Alternate Rates for Energy Program (CARE) or Family Electric Rate Assistance (FERA) Program, owes a specific bill amount and are more than 90 days past due. (It should be noted that the City of Morro Bay’s water and sewer discount program is based on the CARE eligibility, i.e. if you qualify for CARE, you qualify for the City’s discount, too, but you must enroll for it at City Hall.);
• PG&E’s Medical Baseline Program as well as various external programs such as the California COVID-19 Rent Relief Act help income-eligible households pay rent and utilities, both for past due and future payments. Renters and landlords are eligible to apply.
But with COVID still very much a threat, indeed as SLO County and all of California along with much of the nation revert back to mask mandates, some will still have trouble paying ever-rising utility bills. PG&E’s patience apparently only goes so far.
“Residential customers who miss more than two payments, and small business customers who miss one payment within a 12-month period, will be removed from the payment plan,” the company said. “As a last resort, gas and/or electric service may be disrupted approximately 45-days later, unless payment is received.”
So how widespread is this issue of owing on bills? Mesesan said he didn’t have information specifically for the Estero Bay communities, but the matter is pretty widespread in PG&E’s service area.
“Currently,” Mesesan said, “1.15 million PG&E residential customers are behind on their payments; 430,000 residential and 30,000 small business customers are eligible for the new auto-enroll payment plans. Customers not eligible for the new automatic payment plan program can call to be enrolled in a 12-month payment plan.”
The company offers a lifeline. “Disconnection of service is an action that PG&E does not take lightly. Customers having a hard time paying their bills should contact PG&E immediately at (800) 743-5000.”
For more information about additional resources and financial assistance programs see: pge.com/covid19 or call (800) 743-5000. Financial resources for business customers are also available.