At least 1 million Floridians face unpaid utility bills and power cutoffs; attorneys push for relief

The FL Public Service Commission voted Tuesday not to prevent utility companies from disconnecting customers long overdue on their power bills. Credit: FL PSC

Roughly 1 million Floridians have been unable to pay utility bills during COVID 19 and fear power disconnections this month that could shut down air-conditioning, lights and appliances, making homes unlivable.

Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, has petitioned Florida utility regulators to impose a 90-day moratorium on such cutoffs, saying many families will be forced from their homes.

While some families might move in with relatives or friends — causing crowded and less safe conditions — others could become homeless.

Earthjustice filed its petition Tuesday before the Florida Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities such as investor-owned electric companies and other entities. The PSC has 30 days to decide whether to grant the petition to halt cutoffs.

Since March, amid massive virus-related unemployment, lockdowns and business closures, Florida’s investor-owned utilities voluntarily did not cut off power for non-payment. But disconnections resumed in September, with utility companies offering various forms of assistance to help customers catch up on arrears.

Duke Energy Florida spokeswoman Ana Gibbs told the Florida Phoenix Tuesday that 63,800 of its 1.8 million customers are 60 or more days late on payments and subject to disconnection. She wrote that the company disconnected 17 residential customers and then stopped.

“We have disconnected service to approximately 17 residential customers, and in fairness to all residential customers, we have decided to pause residential disconnections until October,” Gibbs said. Duke disconnected 110 or so of its non-residential customers, she added.

Florida Power & Light Co. and Tampa Electric Co. (TECO) did not provide their data on recent cutoffs.

TECO spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs said the company “returned to standard disconnection practices” last week and that “disconnections have been minimal due to the multiple forms of assistance available and flexible payment extensions.”

The Earthjustice petition mirrors the public-safety rationale cited by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for halting evictions for the rest of the year.

The CDC insists that safe shelter is essential to protect citizens from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Likewise, Earthjustice argues that becoming homeless is a likely consequence of having no power for heat, air-conditioning, lights and appliances – pushing households into harm’s way.

“In the midst of this economic and public health calamity, Duke Energy Florida, Tampa Electric Company, and Florida Power & Light Co. have resumed cutting off Floridians’ electricity due to non-payment. Based on the latest data provided by the utilities, these companies may shut off the electricity to over 1 million people in the state,” the petition says, in part. “Electricity is a necessity in Florida, not a luxury, given the extreme weather conditions we face in this state. This is why cutting off electricity has long been recognized as a constructive eviction under Florida law.”

The CDC issued a moratorium on evictions for the rest of the year, but there is none in Florida on utility cutoffs.

Since March, as many as 1.3 million Floridians were jobless, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO).

The unemployed have been drawing up to $275 a week of state-level Unemployment Insurance benefits — the lowest in the nation based on the number of weeks and the amounts paid in unemployment benefits.

The jobless also received weekly federal payments of $600 atop the state benefit through July, then $300 weekly for August, and then the federal payments stopped.

The National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA) reports that as of Sept. 8, 22 states and the District of Columbia had moratoriums on utility cutoffs.

Florida is not and has never been under such a moratorium; instead, its five investor-owned utilities voluntarily stopped cutting off power for non-payment and are now free to resume at their discretion.

Cindy Muir, the Public Service Commission’s director of consumer assistance and outreach, said utility companies that operate in Florida are free to waive disconnections if they wish.

Duke, TECO, and NextEra subsidiaries Florida Power & Light and Gulf Power say on their websites that they have begun collecting on debts and offer extended payment plans and/or adjustments to delinquent residential and business customers. They also say they have made large donations to assist the needy, including delinquent utility customers.

Earthjustice’s petition cites Florida statutes authorizing public utilities to enact emergency rules in the presence of “an immediate danger to the public health, safety, or welfare” and argues that the coronavirus pandemic certainly meets that criteria.

The petition was filed by Earthjustice attorneys Bradley Marshall and Jordan Luebkemann on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens, being customers of the named utilities, and Duke Energy customers Zoraida Santana and Jesse Moody.

The Duke customers say in the petition that they fell $2,000 in arrears on utility payments after being laid off and, though Santana is working again, cannot afford to pay back payments on top of their current monthly payments.