By Juan Pablo Garnham
April 18, 2020
Carly Eaves had to choose between paying for food or covering the electricity bill. She chose food.
Eaves, of Santa Fe, was laid off from her job as a server at a Waffle House last month, and her husband lost his job as a line cook at an Olive Garden as Texas businesses shuttered or limited operations under officials’ orders meant to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
As money dried up and bills piled up, Express Energy sent them a letter threatening to disconnect their electricity. The company offered a payment plan, but that required at least $90 to keep the power on. It was money Eaves said they didn’t have. She tried to opt into a Public Utility Commission program for people receiving unemployment aid, like her husband, so a moratorium on utility shutoffs would apply to their household. But she could never get through.
“I spent all of our money on food,” said Eaves, a mother of three kids who is studying accounting. “That’s all that I could do. For a family of five with no income, we didn’t have enough for anything else.”
The PUC regulates Texas’ electric, telecommunication, water and sewer utilities. It has implemented policies to prevent people whose incomes have been slashed from having their utilities cut off during a public health crisis in which officials are pushing people to stay at home and practice stringent hygiene. But some Texans, like the Eaves family, are falling through the cracks of a complicated bureaucracy and a patchwork system of utility regulation.
On March 26, the PUC issued several orders for energy companies in the competitive market that covers most of the state. The commission required companies to offer deferred payment plans during the COVID-19 crisis if customers need one. And it told providers to halt utility disconnections for six months for people getting Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan or unemployment insurance. On Friday, the PUC updated the program so that the moratorium will end July 17, earlier than initially ordered. But the commission could extend it past that date at future meetings.
Still, that moratorium requires Texans to opt into the program, which Eaves said was next to impossible because it was so hard to get through to the hotline.
An Express Energy representative could not be reached for comment to discuss the Eaves’ situation. During a PUC meeting Friday, Chairman DeAnn T. Walker acknowledged problems Texans are facing as they try to get the protections her agency announced. She said customers have complained about being on hold for hours, having calls disconnected, not getting calls back and having their power cut despite attempts to go through proper channels.
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