Arlanta Shelley was grocery shopping on a Friday morning in October when she got a call from her oldest son, who is nineteen and lives with schizophrenia. He had been at home playing video games until the screen went dark.
“I thought maybe it was due to a mistake or something else could have went wrong, maybe a blown fuse,” said Shelley, who lives in far-north suburban Gurnee.
She got on the phone with Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) and learned that her electric service had been cut off due to nonpayment on her bill, which had ballooned to more than $800. Shelley was surprised because she had heard she didn’t have to worry about late utility payments due to protections put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Especially with this COVID going on, I just didn’t think they would cut my lights off,” said Shelley, thirty-nine, who works as a home health aide assisting elderly individuals. “And then I was afraid. ‘What if they cut my gas and water off too?’ I panicked. I didn’t know what to do.”
Since September, when a statewide moratorium on utility shutoffs enacted in response to COVID-19 expired, more than 73,000 Illinois households have had their electric service cut off because of nonpayment, according to state filings and publicly available data from utilities. Based on Illinois’ average household size, an estimated 189,000 residents lost access to electricity at some point between September 30 and December 31.
By far, the most affected have been residents in low-income, predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods, including thousands of homes on Chicago’s South and West sides—yet another way the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color, which have faced higher rates of death, illness, and unemployment resulting from the virus.
“We’re essentially punishing people for being poor during a pandemic,” said Karen Lusson, a staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center who has represented the Chicago-based group Community Organizing and Family Issues, or COFI, in proceedings with state utility regulators.
State filings and interviews with consumer and community advocates show the issue stems from a failure by Illinois regulators and officials to ensure the state’s most vulnerable residents—including low-income, elderly, and sick individuals—could remain safely in their homes in order to contain the virus.
Allowing utilities to cut off service may also have exacerbated the virus’s spread.
“Utility [service] is a necessity that you cannot live in a home without,” said State Rep. Carol Ammons (103rd), whose district includes Champaign-Urbana. Ammons said losing service “causes more people to have to leave their homes, which causes people to have to interact more with other people in order to try to find a place to stay. That really causes a ripple effect.”
This past fall, state regulators voted against reinstating Illinois’ initial COVID-19 moratorium on utility shutoffs—even after utilities reported data showing tens of thousands of homes were being disconnected as temperatures dropped and cases of the virus began surging again.
Meanwhile, seventeen other states and the District of Columbia have kept bans on disconnections in place throughout the pandemic, which as of January 31 has killed more than 21,000 people in Illinois and 2.23 million worldwide.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has urged utilities to voluntarily freeze shutoffs—and several have said that they would do so, under certain conditions, through the end of March 2021—but said he did not have the authority to impose a ban on utility shutoffs. But others have pushed back, citing the governor’s broad powers during the public health emergency and an executive order by New Jersey’s governor that extended the state’s utility disconnections until March 31, 2021
“We have had people who are in their own apartment who had had to move their family, three or four children, to a relative’s because they have no utility service,” Ammons said. “This is a recipe for significant disaster.”
The eleven ZIP codes with the most electric disconnections during the pandemic are all on Chicago’s South and West sides, state data shows, with the most shutoffs occurring in ZIP codes that cover Chatham, Auburn Gresham, Calumet Heights, East Side, Roseland, Pullman, South Shore, West Lawn, Woodlawn, and Englewood.
In some South Side neighborhoods, ComEd shut off service from more than four percent of all households, a rate nearly four times higher than for the company’s total coverage area across northern Illinois, where it serves 3.7 million customers.
“We do recognize that those communities have been hit hard,” said Nichole Owens, ComEd’s vice president of customer channels. “ComEd does not have policies and does not have systems that would target communities or neighborhoods for disconnections. There is not some guy sitting in a room flipping switches.”
In filings with state regulators, ComEd blamed shutoffs on customers who didn’t reach out to the company about their financial situation, stating that without the threat of disconnections or late fees, “many customers did not seek help.”
The company said it was on track to disconnect less than a quarter of households compared to its pre-pandemic projections for 2020. It also argued that continuing a full ban on shutoffs would shift the burden of unpaid bills to all customers. (State law allows electric and gas utilities to recover the full amount of unpaid bills by adjusting rates for all customers.)
ComEd said that as a result of the state’s initial six-month shutoff moratorium, the average overdue balance for its low-income customers had increased to $529 compared to $252 last year. But advocates say ComEd and other utilities failed to fully acknowledge the financial reality faced by residents who had lost jobs or had their hours reduced as a result of the pandemic.
Illinois processed unemployment claims from more than 1.3 million people from the start of the pandemic in March through October 2020, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security.
“We can’t ignore the impact it’s had on people’s incomes,” Lusson said. “We can’t look at dealing with this crisis by simply saying, ‘Well, unless we send disconnection notices and issue disconnections, the bad debt will be too high.’ At what cost? The disconnection of thousands of customers. That’s unacceptable.”
Even before the pandemic, nearly one third of U.S. households were struggling to pay their energy bills, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Pablo Mendiola said his family went without gas service for nearly a year because of an outstanding bill, forcing him, his wife, and their two children to heat their home in Back of the Yards with space heaters. That increased the family’s electricity use, leading to an outstanding electric bill of about $1,350, he said.
Mendiola, who works in cleaning services, said he was unable to work for three months because of the pandemic, during which his family received a disconnection notice from ComEd.
Although he was eventually able to pay the entire bill and keep the electricity running, Mendiola, fifty-eight, said the family’s gas service was not restored until November, when an energy-focused nonprofit helped cover the outstanding balance.
“It definitely has been stressful because you’re wondering, ‘Where can I go? What can I do next?’” said Mendiola, who spoke in Spanish through an interpreter.
Owens and representatives from other utilities—including Ameren Illinois, Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas—told the Weekly they enhanced measures to assist customers during the pandemic and increased communication efforts to reach customers struggling with their bills. They also said they encouraged customers facing financial hardship to contact their provider to explore options for financial assistance.
Utility disconnections in Illinois during the pandemic have been mostly limited to electric service. In May 2019, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a moratorium on water shutoffs that remains in effect. State filings show 2,579 households outside of Chicago had water service shut off in October, while more than 500 homes statewide have had gas service disconnected during the pandemic.
Addressing electric shutoffs, Lightfoot expressed frustration in a September 21 letter to ComEd CEO Joe Dominguez that the utility planned to resume disconnections “amidst a pandemic and financial crisis.” Lightfoot also stated the city would not sign a new franchise agreement with ComEd—which remains under federal investigation for what prosecutors have called a “years-long bribery scheme”—until the utility commits to implementing “a plan to eliminate the use of late fees and non-payment disconnections as credit and collections techniques,” among other conditions.
ComEd resumed disconnections three days later.
‘It’s just ridiculous’
For those affected by shutoffs, losing utility service can have a devastating impact any time, advocates say, let alone during a deadly pandemic that is unprecedented for most people alive today.
Rosazlia Grillier, a mother and community organizer in Englewood, had gas service shut off at her home several years ago. “It really kind of challenged my ability to live,” said Grillier, who works on energy assistance initiatives as co-chair of COFI’s Stepping Out of Poverty campaign.
Grillier said people need “every ounce of energy or effort” they have to get through the pandemic and shouldn’t have to worry about losing something as vital as utility service.
Given COVID-19 restrictions, living without electricity or gas service makes it more difficult to access medical services remotely, to work from home and to participate in remote learning.
“How can you stay in your home if you don’t have heat?” said Mia Segal, managing attorney in the health, housing, and economic stability group of the Legal Aid Society, which provides legal services for low-income families in Chicago. “How can your kids e-learn if you don’t have electricity?”
For those who receive housing through Section 8 and other rental assistance programs, losing service can directly lead to losing their home, as tenants are often responsible for ensuring continuous utility service or risk being forced out.
“It’s just ridiculous because there’s a lot of people that don’t have jobs right now,” said Cedric Robinson, who lost his job at a restaurant near his home in Urbana this spring as a result of the pandemic.
Robinson, thirty-two, eventually landed a new job at a Best Buy. But in the meantime, he fell behind on his electric bill, which had grown to more than $300.
Robinson was in the shower one morning in early November getting ready for work when the lights went out. Because of his outstanding bill, downstate utility Ameren Illinois shut off electric service in the 600-square-foot apartment he shares with his girlfriend and their roommate — even though Robinson said he had called the company a week earlier and arranged to begin making payments once he received his next paycheck, which was later that day.
“It didn’t make sense,” he said. “They turned off my power the same day they said they were going to take a payment plan.”
Robinson finished showering in the dark, grabbed his towel off the door hook and then used the flashlight on his phone to help him get dressed. He then got in touch with the local township supervisor’s office, which contacted Ameren Illinois on his behalf and got the company to restore service at his apartment later that day.
But Robinson’s electric bill has started to add up again. It’s currently at $235, he said.
“I need time to pay it,” he said.
Once customers are disconnected, utilities typically require them to pay a certain percentage of their outstanding bill before restoring service, which can be a challenge for some.
That was the case for a Chicago woman who filed a complaint with the Citizens Utility Board this fall after Peoples Gas disconnected gas service at her home. The utility, which has disconnected service from 372 households during the pandemic, told her she needed to pay thirty percent of her outstanding bill to have service restored. But the woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said she was unable to pay the amount because of her financial situation.
In her complaint, she told CUB “she was under the impression that per the ‘COVID Rules’ she would be protected from disconnection.”
Of the roughly 50,000 households disconnected by ComEd as of late November, about ninety-seven percent have had service restored, according to data shared by the company with consumer advocates, meaning that about 1,500 homes remain disconnected.
Ameren Illinois, which provides electric service to 1.2 million customers in central and southern Illinois, did not say how many of the 23,000-plus homes it disconnected this year have had service restored.
‘Everybody is under stress’
As Illinois’ ban on utility shutoffs was about to expire in early September, lawyers and advocates representing utility customers in Chicago and across the state were sounding the alarm about the potential negative consequences of resuming disconnections.
In fact, so were those with the power to do something about it.
On September 4, a week before the state’s shutoff moratorium ended, commissioners with the Illinois Commerce Commission, which regulates utilities, sent a letter to utility executives urging them to “take immediate steps” to halt residential disconnections resulting from nonpayment until spring 2021. The letter noted that two regions of the state had recently increased restrictions due to a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, and that Illinois’ unemployment rate remained high, at 11.3 percent.
“Customers continue to struggle with the current health emergency,” stated the letter, which was signed by all five commissioners of the ICC. Commissioners also said shutoffs would “have a disproportionate impact on the state’s most vulnerable citizens: the elderly, persons with medical conditions, and those working and learning remotely.”
In response, two utilities—Nicor Gas, which serves 2.2 million homes and businesses in Chicago’s suburbs; and Liberty Utilities, which provides gas service to about thirty communities in southern Illinois —agreed to continue holding off on residential disconnections entirely until next spring.
Other utilities, including the state’s largest electric service providers, ComEd and Ameren Illinois, did not. Instead, they agreed to more limited protections for customers, pledging to hold off on disconnections for low-income customers and for those who claimed financial hardship by contacting their provider.
Although the protections have helped some customers stay connected—ComEd said nearly 78,000 residential customers had contacted the company to express a financial hardship as of early December—others have fallen through the cracks.
“The vast majority of customers don’t know what their options are,” Segal said. “For people to reach out, they have to know they need to reach out. And everybody is under stress in ways that we haven’t been before.”
In some cases, customers have received shutoff notices even after utilities announced that they were ceasing disconnections, said Jared Policicchio, supervising assistant corporation counsel with Chicago’s Law Department, who has represented the city in proceedings with the ICC.
“It obviously creates confusion for customers and residents,” he said.
While customers eligible for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) are protected from shutoffs, the pandemic has caused delays in processing LIHEAP applications, state filings show. Some residents have also struggled to upload required documents online.
“That’s the biggest hurdle we’re facing right now,” said Erin Dowland Kabwe, chief development officer with the Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County, which assists residents with LIHEAP applications.
The organization’s roughly 100 locations throughout Cook County remain closed, meaning residents cannot receive in-person assistance.
Since the pandemic started, about fifty percent of residents who started LIHEAP applications have not completed them, Dowland Kabwe said, reflecting the difficulty many have had navigating the process online.
‘A missed opportunity’
On October 22, the ICC’s commissioners, who a month earlier had pleaded with utilities to hold off on disconnections, voted 4-1 to strike down a measure proposed by Lusson that would have reinstated the state’s full freeze on utility shutoffs.
The vote came one week after the commission received data showing utilities had shut off service from more than 16,000 homes after disconnections resumed in September.
On the day of the vote, Illinois reported a record high of nearly 5,000 new COVID-19 cases.
Commissioner Maria Bocanegra cast the lone dissenting vote. “I just want to express my extreme disappointment that the commission is not taking this opportunity to get ahead of what is the inevitable,” Bocanegra said during the October 22 meeting, which was held virtually. “The circumstances continue to evolve and are changing, and I think this is a missed opportunity for the commission to really take advantage of an opportunity to protect … consumers.”
ICC Chairman Carrie Zalewski said she shared Bocanegra’s concerns given the rising COVID-19 cases and evidence of “help not getting to those who need it.” But Zalewski then voted against the measure, saying she hoped utilities and other stakeholders “continue a conversation” to “get help to those who are particularly affected by the pandemic.”
The ICC declined an interview request with Zalewski. “As a quasi-judicial body, ICC Commissioners review all legal arguments before taking a vote and speak through” the commission’s written orders, ICC spokesperson Victoria Crawford stated via email.
Crawford wrote the commission “has worked vigorously to protect all residential and small business customers from losing access to utility service,” in part through an agreement reached in June that provides increased debt forgiveness and bill payment assistance, in addition to a temporary ban on reporting nonpayments or late payments to credit and collection agencies.
Five days after the ICC’s vote, Urbana’s mayor hand-delivered a City Council resolution to Pritzker’s staff urging the governor to reinstate the full ban on utility shutoffs.
Pritzker said he doesn’t have the ability to “simply put a moratorium in place.” But the governor, who has broad powers under the state’s Emergency Management Act, froze evictions by executive order last April, and the ICC enacted the shutoff ban at Pritzker’s request.
“I don’t understand why the executive orders that were in place at the height [of the pandemic] in March and April are not in place during this resurgence period,” Ammons said. “The people really need the executive branch to step in on this as we are asking them to stay at home, to limit contact.”
Jose I. Sanchez Molina, Pritzker’s deputy press secretary, stated via email, “While Governor Pritzker does not have the authority to fully suspend utility disconnections, the administration has requested that the ICC do all it can to ensure that residents and businesses continue to have access to utilities.”
In mid-November, ComEd, Ameren Illinois, and several other utilities agreed to cease all residential disconnections about two weeks before the start of the state’s annual moratorium on shutoffs during winter months, which took effect Dec. 1.
By that point, at least 73,000 homes statewide had been disconnected.
“I think there was a sense that if the utilities agreed not to cut off [low-income customers] and not cut off people who express financial hardship, everyone will be okay,” Lusson said. “But the reality is that that hasn’t worked as intended. The reality is that we needed a broad moratorium during a pandemic so that people could remain safely in their homes.”
Expanded protections for customers with unpaid utility bills are set to expire at the end of the year. Lusson, Policicchio and community advocates say the state and utilities must take steps to continue and even expand those protections, including by eliminating fees for late payments and increasing access to payment assistance programs.
“We just don’t know where the economy is going to be,” Lusson said. “Deferred payment arrangements won’t be enough.”
Also uncertain is what the state of the virus will be on March 31, when the state-mandated winter moratorium on disconnections expires.
As of now, Owens said ComEd plans to resume disconnections in April.
Shelley said she was able to get electric service restored at her Gurnee home the same day in October after calling a number of agencies that offer financial assistance.
But the incident brought added stress as she struggled to afford food and other essentials for herself and her two sons, the younger of whom has been struggling with anxiety since the start of the pandemic, she said.
“My fifteen-year-old, he’s just so scared,” Shelley said, adding that losing electric service in her home, even for just part of a day, was a “troubling experience.”
“What if that happened to the clients I take care of?” she said. “They need people like me to help them. And here it is, the person who’s helping them is going through a crisis. Something has to be done.”
The pandemic’s financial strain continues to impact electric customers. According to data filed with state regulators in January, ComEd and Ameren Illinois assessed late fees to more than 940,000 customers in December alone, the most in a single month since the start of the pandemic.
In late December, Lightfoot, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and consumer advocates sent utility executives a letter asking the companies to extend the enrollment period for financially strapped customers with overdue bills to enter into deferred payment arrangements of up to 24 months — a provision of the June agreement with utilities that expired Dec. 31. As of Jan. 22, ComEd, Nicor Gas and Peoples Gas had agreed to extend enrollment for the deferred payment plans through March 31.
Since the inauguration of President Biden on January 20, a coalition of advocacy groups is calling on the president to direct the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a directive under the Public Health Service Act enacting a national moratorium on residential utility and water disconnections resulting from nonpayment. The groups cite a Duke University study showing that local bans on utility and water shutoffs and evictions have reduced the spread of COVID-19.
Meanwhile, consumer advocates are encouraged by the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan proposed by President Biden, which calls for $5 billion to help cover home energy and water bills. Some of that money could be used to cancel debts from overdue payments, which have grown during the pandemic, Lusson said.
“We can’t just do nothing,” she said. “These [debts] have accumulated in people’s monthly bills due to no fault of their own. We need to as a society address this and not make a bad situation worse.”
More info on utility service/disconnections.
- To contact ComEd about your electric service, call 1-800-334-7661 (or 1-800-955-8237 for support in Spanish).
- For more information about applying for financial assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), contact the Community and Economic Development Association (CEDA) of Cook County at 1-800-571-2332.
- To file a complaint about your utility service, contact the Citizens Utility Board at 1-800-669-5556 or fill out an online form.
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul has encouraged residents facing a utility disconnection to contact his office at 1-800-386-5438. Residents can also file a complaint with the AG’s office online.
Update, February 3, 2021: This piece was updated for print in the February 4 issue.
Alex Ruppenthal is a freelance reporter in Chicago. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is his first piece for the Weekly.