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ICC approves further utility relief for struggling billpayers

An effort initiated by the Illinois Commerce Commission helps ensure that eligible residential and small-business utility customers can continue to receive electric, gas, water and sewer services once the moratorium on disconnections for non-payment and late payment fees expires.

On Thursday, the ICC voted unanimously in favor of a stipulated agreement negotiated by commission staff, the Attorney General’s Office and other consumer advocate groups, and the state’s largest utilities, offering temporary, more flexible credit and collection procedures to customers financially hard hit by COVID-19. A separate agreement was also approved with smaller electricity, gas and water utilities that serve Illinois residents.

“More than one million unemployment claims have been filed in Illinois since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and even as Illinois begins the process of reopening, uncertainty remains. The terms of this agreement acknowledge that families and small businesses across Illinois are hurting and may need additional help managing their utility bills to stay connected once the moratorium on shutoffs is lifted,” said ICC Chairman Carrie Zalewski. “Reaching this agreement was no easy task. I would like to thank all of the parties involved for their time, compassion and hard work.”

On March 18, 2020, at the request of Gov. JB Pritzker and Attorney General Kwame Raoul, the ICC formalized a moratorium on utility disconnections and late payment fees to ensure the continuation of essential services during the COVID-19 public health emergency in Docket No. 20-0309. As part of the order, the commission also directed the utilities to implement plans to offer temporary flexible credit and collection practices during the recovery process which launched negotiations into the stipulated agreement.

The large utility stipulated agreement covers eight of the state’s major utility companies, including: Aqua Illinois, Illinois-American Water Company, Utility Services of Illinois, Inc., Ameren Illinois Co., Northern Illinois Gas Company (Nicor Gas), North Shore Gas Company, The Peoples Gas Light & Coke Company (Peoples Gas), and Commonwealth Edison (ComEd).

The terms of the stipulated agreement with the large utilities include extending the moratorium on disconnections and suspension of late payment fees until Illinois enters Phase 4 of Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan, or Aug. 1, 2020, whichever comes first, and for an additional 30 days beyond that for most customers. The large utilities will then have 30 days to notify residential consumers with past due balances on their account about the more flexible payment and bill assistance options available and how to enroll before disconnection notices are sent.

Other meaningful provisions of the large utility agreement will allow residential customers to pay their utility bills to pay back accrued balances over an extended period of time depending on financial hardship. The customer’s expression of financial hardship can be verbal and not require documentation. Additionally, reduced down payments on deferred payment arrangements will be available, and for those eligible for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program or other bill payment assistance, deferred payment arrangements will be offered with no down payment.

Among other terms of the stipulated agreement with the state’s largest utilities are:

•         Deposits associated with late or non-payment arrearages or credit related issues for new or existing customers shall be waived for at least six months for residential customers who express financial hardship.

•         Utilities must reconnect customers previously disconnected for nonpayment and waive any reconnection fees for a period of at least six months for LIHEAP-qualified customers and customers experiencing financial hardship.

•         Reconnection information and temporary credit and collection policies must be displayed on utility websites.

•         Utility companies will continue their current practice of not reporting late payments and nonpayment for active customers to credit bureaus and reporting agencies.

•         Extensive reporting by the utility companies is required to ensure compliance with the stipulated agreement and monthly disconnection, credit and collections data must be reported by zip code or service region or district so that the commission may evaluate the impact on various communities.

The Commission also approved a similar consumer protection focused agreement with five of Illinois’ smaller utility companies, namely Consumers Gas Company, Illinois Gas Company, Liberty Utilities Corp., MidAmerican Energy Company, and Mount Carmel Public Utility Company. In alignment with the large utility agreement, the agreement with the small utilities suspends disconnections and late fees for nonpayment until Illinois enters Phase 4 of Governor Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan, or August 1, 2020, whichever comes first. Among a variety of independent commitments, the small utility agreement further provides protections for residential customers through temporary waivers of reconnection fees and new deposit requirements, as well as more flexible DPA terms.

In addition to the utility companies named above, the stipulated agreement participants include the Office of the Illinois Attorney General, the City of Chicago, Community Organizing and Family Issues, the Citizens Utility Board, Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Family Services, Allen Cherry, and Staff of the Illinois Commerce Commission.

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