A Southern California Edison crew installs a new overhead switch for circuit reliability on May 13, 2020 in Ventura, Calif. Credit – Brent Stirton—Getty Image
For people who lost jobs or income during the pandemic, life has been a series of terrifying deadlines. There was July 24, the end of a federal eviction moratorium from government-backed housing, which had protected about one-third of renters. There was July 30, when a program providing an extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits expired, reducing the incomes of tens of millions of Americans.
Now, the beginning of September looms as yet another deadline as utility companies resume cutting power to customers who have fallen behind on their bills. In some states, moratoriums preventing them from doing so are ending, and in other states, utility company pledges to keep customers connected are winding down. Residents in Ohio, Florida, Maryland, Indiana, and Illinois are all at risk of shutoffs in early September; shutoffs can resume in late September or October in North Carolina,Tennessee and Texas.
“We’re facing a tidal wave of terminations,” says Charlie Harak, senior attorney for energy and utilities issues at the National Consumer Law Center.
There is no national account of how many customers could lose power, but there are certainly millions of people who risk disconnection at a time when people need their utilities the most. Kids need electricity to attend online classes, which will be the norm for hundreds of thousands of them as schools reopen. They need light in the evening to do homework. And in large swaths of the country facing extreme heat, life without power means no fans or air conditioning. Additionally, cutoffs can increase risks of COVID-19 infection by forcing some people to leave their homes and squeeze into cramped quarters with friends or relatives who have electrcity.
Based on data from Massachusetts, Harak estimates that as many as 10% of U.S. households are so far behind on their bills they are at risk of termination when moratoriums end. A report by Carbon Switch, an energy efficiency startup, estimates that around 34.5 million people could lose their utility shutoff protections in 14 states in the next month.
Duke Energy, which serves 7.8 million customers across seven states in the southeast and Midwest, tells TIME that 300,000 of its customers are 60 days or more behind on their gas or electric bills. In early August, Florida Power & Light Company (FPL) said that 258,000 customers were behind on payments; Tampa Electric Company said that 92,000 of its customers were behind. A public interest group said in June that 800,000 Pennsylvanians were at risk of service termination. More than 300,000 residential households in Minnesota were past due by the end of July, according to data filed with Minnesota’s Public Utilities Commission.
The impending wave of shutoffs is one more sign of how the economic measures to help Americans who lost jobs during the pandemic have fallen short. There were still 27 million Americans receiving unemployment benefits the week ending August 8, according to the latest Commerce Department data. The end of the $600 in extra weekly unemployment benefits hit many people hard, but many of the people I talked to for this story had not even received the regular unemployment benefits or stimulus checks they were due. State unemployment offices, slammed with a surge in applications and running on outdated systems, are still trying to catch up with applications and appeals. One in three families struggle to pay their utility bills in normal times; even more are falling behind because of the sudden loss of income.
Brandy Wilcoxson, 42, a single mother in Atlanta who works as a security guard, has seen her weekly hours cut from 40 to around 13 because of the pandemic. She’s limited in the shifts she can take because her two kids, ages 14 and 10, are doing virtual learning, and she has to be home to supervise. She should qualify for unemployment benefits under the CARES Act, which allows people who are…