(Source: PA Public Utility Commission)
(Source: PA Public Utility Commission)

The commission that regulates most Pennsylvania utilities announced Thursday it will allow shutoffs to resume early next month — but low- and moderate-income households will remain off-limits.

In a statement, the Public Utility Commission, or PUC, said it has modified the emergency order it issued this spring in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but that it will continue to prohibit termination of utility service for "protected customers."

They are defined as households with incomes within 300% of federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four, that limit would be $78,600.

For customers with incomes above the protected level, terminations may resume Nov. 9, the commission said.

The moratorium for protected customers is tentatively scheduled to last through the end of March 2021. However, that could change, the commission said.

The order applies to the companies under PUC jurisdiction: UGI, PPL and others. It does not apply to utilities owned by municipalities, such as those in Ephrata Borough, which resumed shutoffs of past-due customers in August.

The commission's announcement details a number of other protections for households as well as small-business customers. Among them:

  • Protected customers cannot be assessed late payment charges or reconnection fees.
  • Utilities must make extra effort to reach out to customers at risk of termination when the moratorium is lifted, "detailing their options" and giving a "general time range" for termination. The information must be sent out at least 10 days before the standard 10-day termination notice.
  • Small business customers must be offered up to 18 months to pay down past-due balances, and may not be terminated as long as they stay current on their payment schedule.

The commission also is temporarily liberalizing its rules for accepting medical certificates and income verification.

The commission said it will revisit the issue early next year. In the meantime it is requiring utilities to provide monthly reports on at-risk accounts and actual terminations.

Up to now, the commission had been deadlocked on whether to allow shutoffs to resume. Utilities in the state said this summer that past-due amounts were piling up, nearing $500 million as of June.

Consumer advocates, however, warned that shutoffs could lead to evictions and homelessness for thousands of hard-pressed families.

The commission imposes an annual winter moratorium on shutoffs from the end of November through March, so utilities intending to terminate service under the commission's modified order will have only a short time to do so.

Tim Stuhldreher
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