Millions Risk Losing Power Over Unpaid Utilities As Most States' Pandemic Grace Period Expires

Millions of Americans are facing a dire situation of being without power or water as their utility bills pile up, and as state and local protections which allowed for deferred payments amid the pandemic come to an end.

After a summer of rising unemployment numbers brought on by the crisis, though seeing a promising potential softening of the trend in SeptemberThe Washington Post recently detailed some instances of people going as much as two months in the dark after falling behind on utility payments last spring.

"The worst economic crisis in more than a generation has thrust potentially millions of Americans across the country into a similar, sudden peril: Cash-strapped, and in some cases still unemployed, they have fallen far behind on their electricity, water and gas bills, staring down the prospect of potential utility shut-offs and fast-growing debts they may never be able to repay," the Post summarized of new National Energy Assistance Directors' Association (NEADA) analysis.

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Soon following the start of the pandemic in the US and resulting state lockdowns, most states moved to ensure residents that they would prevent utility shut-offs for an extended grace period. But still the debts have mounted, and at this point, the NEADA finds, only 21 states along with the District of Columbia still have disconnection bans in place

That means the majority of states are shutting off utilities over unpaid bills. And further, "Millions more in nine other states are set to lose their protections starting Thursday and throughout the fall, the group found," WaPo reports.

The study found that 179 million Americans are potentially at risk of shut-offs, though with the big and unlikely assumption that the vast amount of households would fail to pay their bills altogether. But still even a small percentage of this number means many hundreds of thousands of households, or even millions, face being in the dark. 

Consider a single state, Indiana:

In some cases, the delinquencies appear to be severe. In Indiana, for example, more than 112,000 households are behind 120 days or more on their power bills, a Washington Post analysis of the largest local energy companies’ records found. The debt, totaling millions of dollars, is four times greater than the arrears accrued during the same period in 2019, the data shows.

The report further underscored that the nation's electric and gas debts alone are likely to exceed a whopping $24.3 billion by year's end.

Likely adding to the utilities debt crisis for many families is that fact that lockdowns were in place throughout much of the early summer, keeping families indoors more than they would have been, and at a moment of high temperatures.