(The Center Square) – It is the middle of July, the temperature is going through the roof and air conditioners are working overtime.
The moratorium on utility shut-offs ends on July 25, but hundreds of thousands, if not more, Illinoisans are still out of work because of the COVID-19 pandemic, or just getting back to work after a period of unemployment, or working reduced hours. This means they might not be able to come up with several months worth of utility bills, or maybe even their current bill.
With that in mind, the Illinois Commerce Commission recently approved an extension on deferred payment plans, called DPAs, to up to 24 months and reduced down payments.
COVID-19 Utility Relief Agreements that provide several measures of relief. The commission also extended some programs that existed before the coronavirus pandemic but that many newly unemployed people may not know about the programs.
“We’re always thinking of ways to really help the people that are struggling with affordability issues,” ICC Chairman Carrie Zalewski said in a phone interview. “But this order really is just for people that are impacted for the first time. They find themselves unemployed, with dependents at home, and they’ve never been in that situation. We are seeing an unemployment rate of up to 14%. This is historic.”
Among the measures ICC approved are an extension of delayed payment arrangements for up to two years with down payments as low as 10%. Those in really dire circumstances can get debt forgiveness of up to $500, and they can self-report to their utilities without having to show up in person. Utilities have agreed not to report late payments to credit agencies for the next for months, and no one should be having utilities shut off, Zalewski said.
The key takeaway, though, she said, is that customers need to take the initiative to contact their providers: “Explain your situation and they will give you that extra protection.”
“So the first thing to do is call the utility,” she said. “But if people are not getting the answers they need, they can call the commission. We have a trained staff; they speak Spanish and English. And they’re there five days a week, 8:30 to 5.”
Zalewski said that the commission’s goal is to help people navigate these uncertain times.
“And so anyone can call 800-524-0795 and hopefully get some understanding,” Zalewski said. “These issues are technical and complicated, and they impact everyone’s life. So it’s important that people know there’s help out there.”