What you need to know about utilities in the time of COVID-19

Stock image from the Ohio State Bar Association.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, laws, rules and policies governing public utilities have been in a state of constant change. Utility laws affect almost all Ohioans and those facing financial hardship will benefit from staying up to date on recent changes and assistance opportunities.

PUCO-Regulated Utility Customers

In March, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) ordered an extension of its annual Winter Reconnect Order until May 1. The Winter Reconnect Order helps Ohioans who are facing financial hardship reconnect or maintain electric and natural gas service during the heating season.

This means that if you are a customer of a PUCO-regulated electric or natural gas company, you can avoid disconnection of your utility service or get reconnected for $175 (plus a possible additional reconnection fee of $36), regardless of how much you actually owe. You can only use this service one time per winter season. However, if you owe more than $175 you may be required to commit to an extended payment plan until you are caught up with your bill.

If your income is no more than 175% of federal poverty guidelines, through June 1, the $175 can be paid via the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) Winter Crisis program, a federally funded program that helps eligible Ohioans with their energy bills.

Applications for HEAP Winter Crisis assistance are handled mainly through local county Community Action agency offices, which are locally-run nonprofit organizations that aim to reduce poverty by providing a wide range of programs and services. Check the HEAP website page for more information about how to apply for this program.

If you are unsure if you are a customer of a PUCO-regulated utility company, you can do a search on PUCO’s website.

Nonregulated Utility Customers 

On March 24, Ohio’s electric cooperatives — a statewide organization of 24 Ohio-based electric cooperatives — announced that they would be temporarily suspending all disconnections based on non-payment.

If your electricity was previously disconnected, you should immediately contact your electric cooperative to see your options for reconnection.

If you have a family with children, you may also want to contact your local county Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (DJFS) office to see if you are eligible for any assistance or benefits that can help with your past-due bill.

For the vast majority of water customers who get service through their city or other municipality, House Bill 197 (passed on March 27, 2020) forbids disconnection due to nonpayment during the state of emergency.

The new law also requires reconnection without fee in cases where shutoff occurred on or after Jan. 1, 2020 due to nonpayment. If your water was disconnected, you should contact your utility company to get the reconnection process started. However, you are still required to pay your bill.

If your utility companies do not fall into any of these categories, still check in with them about any changes they may have made in light of the pandemic.

If you’re facing disconnection, or if you need reconnection, contact your utility company as soon as possible to discuss hardship options. Like with the other utility companies discussed, you should also contact your local Community Action Agency office about the possibility of HEAP Winter Crisis eligibility. Or if you are in a family with children, contact your local DJFS office about emergency assistance.

How an Attorney Can Help

An attorney can help determine whether you are a customer of a regulated or nonregulated utility company, if you are subject to special protections in this time of emergency or if you are eligible to access emergency assistance, all of which can be confusing. The sooner you can keep or restore your utility service, the better you can ensure that you and your household stay safe.

Commentary provided by the Ohio State Bar Association, which notes the article is intended to provide broad, general information about the law. This article is not intended to be legal advice. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from a licensed attorney.