For companies like Con Edison, pulling the plug on customers who fall behind in paying their bills is usually a last resort, which it typically avoids during the coldest months. But for most of the last two years, as the pandemic inflicted widespread financial hardship, overdue utility payments have soared.
Nationally, the total level of arrears to utility companies is about $22 billion, after peaking at about $32 billion in the spring of 2021, said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association.
But that is still significantly higher than before the pandemic, when debt totaled about $12 billion. In New York and New Jersey alone, more than two million customers are in debt to companies that provide electricity, heat, water and broadband.
Con Edison says it has held off on disconnecting residential customers and small businesses. But on Wednesday, New Jersey’s largest power distributor, PSE&G, started sending representatives to shut off electricity of customers who had not responded to multiple warnings and whose bills were more than 90 days past due, a company spokeswoman said.
Advocates worry that many vulnerable customers, especially the poor and older people, will be left in the dark or saddled with obligations they can never repay. Many who owe large amounts are working-class people like Marisol Rivera, who fell far behind after being out of work for most of the last two years.
Ms. Rivera, a single mother of two who lives in Brooklyn, owes Con Edison more than $3,300.
Even though utilities in New York state are no longer prohibited from disconnecting delinquent customers, “the last thing that we want to do is to shut anybody off,” said Jamie McShane, a spokesman for the company.
Instead, they try to work out repayment plans over a period of months or even years. Or, as in Ms. Rivera’s case, longer than that.