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CSA Joins the Call for Utility Shutoff Moratorium

January 13, 2021
By CSA Sisters of St. Agnes

The Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes, along with more than 600 utility-justice, environmental, racial justice, labor, and faith groups, delivered a letter today to President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris urging their administration to halt utility shutoffs nationwide to protect public health. 

The No Shutoffs Coalition, which has advocated for a federal moratorium on utility shutoffs since the COVID-19 crisis began, presented Biden with a draft Executive Order that would instruct the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to use her authority under the Public Health Service Act to enact a national moratorium on residential disconnections of all water, electricity, broadband, heat and other necessary utility services for nonpayment. 

The proposed order, which would also mandate safe restoration to previously disconnected homes, would last the full duration of the COVID national emergency and at least 12 months following its end. 

This letter follows the October call from the House Oversight’s Subcommittee on Environment Chair Harley Rouda and Vice Chair Tlaib to outgoing CDC Director Robert Redfield to issue a national water shutoff moratorium. Director Redfield sent a letter to organizations to advise people who experience water shutoffs to use hand sanitizer or dirty water for handwashing. Rep. Tlaib has been advocating for a national shutoff moratorium since March and was lead sponsor of the Emergency Water Is a Human Right Act to create a $1.5 billion low-income water assistance fund with a moratorium on water and power shutoffs. Senator Merkley introduced the Senate version of the legislation and last April led a 113 Congress member letter in support of a nationwide shutoff moratorium. 

The push for executive action comes after Congress’s failure to enact a moratorium in the COVID relief bill passed in December, despite its inclusion in the House of Representatives’ HEROES Act and broad support from Senate Democrats. While Congress did allot $6 billion in additional funding toward electricity bill relief, that funding does not meet the scale of the crisis. The late December omnibus spending bill included $638 million for a new low-income water assistance program -- far short of need. 

Due to COVID-19 and record unemployment, utility shutoffs remain a severe crisis impacting millions of working American families. Black, Indigenous, and Latinx families are disproportionately impacted. 

Federal action is necessary in the absence of state protections. More than half of the U.S. population is not protected from water shutoffs. Due to the lack of comprehensive data on shutoffs, we still do not know how many households have lost water service during the pandemic. Last year, more than 600,000 customers were officially at risk of service termination or behind on their water bills in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and North Carolina. Between September and November, the country’s largest private water utility, American Water, disconnected over 12,000 households, affecting an estimated 32,000 people, in just three states. Providers in Florida shut off tens of thousands of households over the summer. 

Nearly 80 million people in the U.S. do not have adequate broadband at home, and poor families and communities of color are disproportionately affected by this digital divide. Moreover, 30 percent of low-income people of color report missing an internet payment in the early months of the pandemic, while roughly half are worried about paying for upcoming internet and phone bills.

Only five states retain a moratorium on electricity shutoffs. In November last year alone, nearly 30,000 households in North Carolina had their power shut off by electricity giants Duke Energy and Dominion Energy. Similarly, nearly 40,000 households in Georgia and 35,000 households in Indiana were disconnected in the immediate aftermath of state moratia expiration.  

Stopping utility shutoffs would have clear public health benefits: A study from Duke in June found that water and utility shutoff moratoria reduced the average growth rate of COVID by 2.6%.

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