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More than 80 million Americans are having difficulty paying their bills during the COVID-19 recession, according to the U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey.
This financial insecurity extends to necessary household expenses like utility bills. As a result, many local governments and public utility companies have passed moratoriums on utility shutoffs, so that people can still have running water, electricity, and heat even if they fall behind on payments.
While somes states have been extending their COVID-19 moratoriums as the pandemic stretches on, utility shutoff moratoriums in Florida, Virginia, and other states have ended, leaving millions of working-class people holding the bag. And even if you’re fortunate enough to be covered by a moratorium, it doesn’t mean you’re in the clear — it only means your unpaid bills are deferred. This means that you could owe several months’ worth of water, electric, or gas bills, on top of getting those utilities shut off, when your state moratorium expires.
Here’s what you should know about utility moratoriums, how they work, and what private and public programs you can tap into to help pay your bills. Plus, see below for a state-by-state list of public and private programs that can help you manage your utility bills.
What Is a Utility Moratorium?
A utility moratorium is a temporary suspension of shutoffs, meaning utility companies can’t cut your access to electricity, water, gas, or electricity due to non-payment. Utility companies will often enact moratoriums in the winter or summer (depending on where you live) when the weather is too extreme to send out a technician. These moratoriums are either based on fluctuating temperatures or scheduled for certain months throughout the year.
Now state, county, and city governments and private utility companies have enacted utility shutoff moratoriums in response to historic unemployment numbers and COVID-19. Many of these programs have already expired or will expire soon, according to the Wall Street Journal. The National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association (NEADA), which represents state administrators of the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), estimates that at the end of October, only 40% of the U.S. population was covered by a COVID-19 moratorium — down from 57% in July.
“The sheer number of people affected by COVID-19 threatens to overload the existing private and public programs that have alleviated financial struggle over utility bills,” says Mark Wolfe, executive director of NEADA. Typically, 6 million households receive public energy assistance every year, but Wolfe expects that number to be much higher due to historic unemployment rates.
Moratoriums work as a band-aid solution for struggling households, but weren’t designed to solve or alleviate financial hardship. “Moratoriums essentially delay payment,” says Wolfe. “They’re not a grant.”
That presents a problem for people experiencing financial insecurity. Say you lost your job at the beginning of the pandemic and haven’t been able to find work since. If you live in a place with winter utility moratoriums in place, then you won’t be shut off — but would accumulate debt along the way. “If you don’t get another job until the economy recovers, which could be next spring, you could have a year’s worth of energy bills,” Wolfe says. “That’s an awful lot of money for low-income families.”
Are My Utility Bills Subject to a Moratorium?
You can check if your locality or utility company is subject to a moratorium using these resources:
- The National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association (NEADA): Summary of State Utility Shut-off Moratoriums due to COVID-19
- The National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association (NEADA): Winter and COVID-19 Utility Shut-off Moratoriums
- National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC): Map of Disconnection Moratoria
- NARUC: State Response Tracker
- National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates (NASUCA): COVID-19 Information by State
What to Do If You Can’t Pay Your Utility Bills
If you’ve fallen behind on utility bills or are struggling to make the payments each month, then you’re likely eligible for programs available in your state or utility company.
“If you’re temporarily low income, it’s very likely you’re eligible for assistance — even if you don’t have a shutoff notice, and even if you’re paying your utility bills,” Wolfe says. “Don’t wait until you’re falling behind [to apply].”
1. Talk to Your Utility Company
Many utility companies have enacted their own moratoriums on shutoffs in response to COVID-19, and many already have programs that provide assistance to low-income customers.
“Check what your utility company has to offer, as they may be able to offer relief,” says Jim Chilsen, managing communications director and spokesperson for Citizens Utility Board, a consumer advocacy group representing utility customers across Illinois.
In Illinois, for example, state officials, consumer advocates, and major utility companies such as People’s Gas and ComEd came to an agreement that allowed families to get the financial assistance they needed with their energy bills — no questions asked.
“You must call these utilities and let them know you’re experiencing financial hardship, and then you can connect to see these consumer protections. All you need to say, ‘I’m struggling to pay my bills.’ No documented proof of hardship is required [in Illinois]. You can connect to the moratorium on disconnection, you can sign up for consumer-friendly payment programs, and also deposits will be waived,” Chilsen says.
Keep in mind, though, that not all utilities will recognize your financial situation. Wolfe says that municipal utilities (owned by the government, as opposed to private investor-owned utility companies like Duke Energy and Florida Power & Light Company) and co-ops are often not covered by moratoriums and have been more aggressive in collections during the pandemic. However, it’s still worth getting on the phone and asking them what assistance they’re able to offer.
2. Apply to LIHEAP
The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is a federal program that helps low-income families pay their energy bills — specifically electric, gas, heating, and propane (water not included). It’s a national assistance program administered independently by each state through block grants. Depending on the state, this program may be called LEAP, EAP, or another variant of LIHEAP.
Generally, 6 million households a year receive assistance from LIHEAP, but with the pandemic, Wolfe, whose organization NEADA represents LIHEAP administrators, expects that number to rise dramatically. “Now we’re expecting millions of people, formerly middle class, eligible for assistance,” he says.
Qualifications and application processes will differ for each state, but generally, the program helps people pay energy bills, deal with crises that affect heating and cooling in their homes (i.e., storms and natural disasters), make their homes more energy efficient, and repair old or broken heating and cooling systems.
Some states require what’s called income and asset tests (which assess whether you’re low income by specifying based on how much money you earn or possess) to qualify for LIHEAP. To be approved for the program, you must be low-income and states define this differently, but generally, it’s measured by how your income compares to the federal poverty level and median household income. Some states require more stringent documentation, such as pay stubs, proof of citizenship, permanent address, and employment statements, to back up the info provided in the application. And some only help with heating or cooling — not both.
To apply to LIHEAP, you’d need to go to your state’s local office and find out the qualifications, application process, and how much assistance you’re eligible to receive (in the form of a one-time payment). There are three ways to find your local office:
- Email the National Energy Assistance Referral (NEAR) at email@example.com with your information, including city, county, and state.
- Call NEAR at 866-674-6327 (toll free).
- Select your state on the LIHEAP local office map, offered by the Office of Community Services through the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
3. Apply to the Weatherization Assistance Program
Through the Department of Energy, the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) helps low-income families save money on their utility bills by making their homes more energy efficient. These renovations help conserve fuel through HVAC repairs and replacements, by adding insulation, by replacing refrigerators and lighting, and implementing other energy-saving changes. Generally, they won’t repair your roof or fix your plumbing, because of the cost of those repairs.
Similar to LIHEAP, eligibility requirements will differ depending on the state you live in. So depending on where you live, your state may require household income or asset tests to determine if someone is low-income. Weatherization generally benefits homeowners, but renters can qualify if their landlords sign a consent form.
To apply to the Weatherization Assistance Program, contact your local WAP office.
Relief Programs by State
In addition to LIHEAP and WAP, many states offer relief programs intended for low-income families struggling to pay utility bills. Here’s a list of additional statewide public and private programs: