Help exists for thousands of MA families behind on utility bills

At a crisis level. That’s how consumer advocates describe the amount of utility debt owed by Massachusetts residential customers. The National Consumer Law Center says as of November, near half a million residents in the Commonwealth were more than 90 days behind on their utility bills. And, Boston 25 News anchor, Kerry Kavanaugh found the race is on to connect people in need with the funding that’s out there to help them.

“When I was working, I could make bills meet. But since I retired, it’s a little difficult right now,” said Arthur Cain of Mattapan.

And with the rising cost of utilities, it’s not getting any easier for the 83-year-old who’s on a fixed income and was falling behind on his electric bill.

“It has run up to $600,” Cain said. “But since then, I’ve been sending in $200 a month on the bill. And I got it down to like $100 now.”

Cain found help through a community action agency, ABCD. But, he’s just one of the thousands of Massachusetts residents behind on utility bills.

“We’ve looked very closely at the 90-plus days behind because those people are really at risk of termination. They’re averaging arrears of about $1,300,” said Charles Harak, a staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. He says during the pandemic there was a moratorium on utility shut-offs, but the bills still piled up.

NCLC issued a report in November which found close to a million people could be at risk of losing gas and electric service in Massachusetts.

Harak says a second problem is many people might need help for the first time and not know where to turn.

“People who had jobs before the pandemic and lost them may not know that there is the assistance of various kinds, and they don’t know how to apply.”

According to data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, as of September 2021, the total arrears for all customers is about $300 million more, or 55% higher, than the amount of arrears pre-pandemic.

“If someone is watching this story, and they’re in need of help, what is the very first step they should take,” Kavanaugh asked.

Harak pointed to an online brochure maintained by the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development.

“This is where in your town do you apply for fuel assistance. So, it has all 354 cities and towns and it says if you’re in this town, apply to this agency, and those agencies will know the other forms of assistance.”

This state website is updated annually so information is accurate.

Advocates say as we approach the coldest months of the season, ask about income-eligible assistance programs that can help you before you fall behind. Harak says many working families are eligible for LIHEAP, adding a family of 4 is eligible up to almost $76,000/year in income. Eligibility does vary by household size.

Advocates say to contact the utility companies and ask about financial assistance programs and flexible payment plans. That payment plan is just one benefit helping Cain get back on track.

“We don’t need that much help. But we could use a little help,” Cain says.

The Massachusetts Attorney General’s office just launched an education campaign to inform customers about the programs out there to help them this winter. For more information click here.

We reached out to some of the biggest utility providers in Massachusetts.

National Grid told us ‘in November 2019, we had about 101,000 residential customers who were 90 days or more in arrears. Two years later, after November 2021, it was 117,000. In terms of the amount of money, customers in arrears more than 90 days in Nov. 2019 owed $153 million, and in Nov. 2021, it was $253 million.”

They added, “National Grid is acutely aware of the challenges our customers faced, and are continuing to face, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

And, National Grid says it has offered programs to help customers in every possible way to manage and pay down their arrearages while remaining current on their bills. They include a deferred payment agreement to avoid the risk of disconnection by paying an overdue balance over time with no penalty and $0 down and an arrears forgiveness program with ‘flexible enrollment terms’ and an increase in the amount of arrears that can be forgiven.

National Grid customers can find information about assistance programs here.

Eversource told us “May, 2021 peak accounts receivable (A/R) were 79% higher than pre-pandemic in November, 2019. November, 2021 A/R is 14% lower than our peak May 2021 A/R, but still 54% higher than the same time period two years earlier in November, 2019.”

The company said as part of a statement “shutting service off to customers is the last thing we want to do, and it follows an extensive notification process in which we offer various ways to help. We work one-on-one with customers every day to help them find payment plans or other assistance solutions to best meet their individual needs, and from the onset of the pandemic, we took proactive steps to support customers facing financial challenges and other uncertainty – including special COVID-19 assistance options.”

Eversource customers can find payment assistant options here.