More than 430,000 utility customers in Massachusetts fell badly behind on their electric and natural gas bills during the first 15 months of the pandemic, owing $630 million to utility providers, a new report finds.
The number of people behind on their utility bills rose by 90,000 during that period compared to prepandemic records, according to a study by the Boston-based National Consumer Law Center.
At the end of June, about 430,500 utility account holders were behind by three months or more, about 12 percent of all account holders, compared to about 9 percent behind by three months or more before the pandemic began.
Based on data collected at the end of June, the report shows that the number of account holders who were three months or more past due on their utility bills ballooned by more than 25 percent during that 15-month period.
For electricity customers who were three months or more behind, the average amount owed was $1,650 at the end of June, compared to $1,215 before the pandemic triggered widespread job losses, a jump of about 36 percent.
That average amount owed — $1,650 — equals the average one-year cost of electricity in Massachusetts, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
For natural gas customers who were three months or more behind, the average amount owed was $1,140 at the end of June, compared to $850 before the pandemic, a 23 percent increase.
The average annual bill for gas in Massachusetts is about $1,000.
The report is a stark reminder of the financial hardship wrought by the pandemic on some households.
“The pandemic has had a severe financial impact on customers’ ability to pay for basic necessaries, such as utilities service,” according to the report’s authors, Anna Kowanko and Charlie Harak. “The magnitude of utility arrearages is at crisis level.”
Harak said financial relief is available for those behind on their utilities, but the process can be cumbersome, requiring a lengthy application.
“Funds are available to assist many of the customers who are struggling to pay their past due balances,” he said. “But urgent action is needed to identify vulnerable families and connect people to funding.”
Harak pointed out that Connecticut recently adopted a model in which state governments and utilities work together to use data they already have to identify customers eligible for federal and state assistance.
“That virtually eliminates the lengthy application process,” he said. “Massachusetts and other states should consider following this model.”
Being behind on utility bills for more than 90 days puts customers at risk of shutoff. In the three months since a state shutoff moratorium expired on July 1, about 7,000 customers lost service, the NCLC report says. But that’s a small fraction of the more than 430,500 overdue accounts that could face shutoff.
“Shutting off service, that is the last thing we want to do,” said William Hinkle, a spokesman for Eversource. “We work one-on-one with customers every day to help them find payment plans or other assistance solutions to best meet their individual needs.”
John Lamontagne, a National Grid spokesman, said the utility has communicated with all of its customers “to ensure they are informed of bill pay options and financial assistance.”
“Service disconnection is our absolute last resort to collect outstanding debt,” he said.
Eversource and National Grid say they offer partial forgiveness of past-due balances and discounted rates for low-income families. And every household, regardless of income, can set up a 12-month payment plan. As long as the agreed-upon payments are made, service won’t be cut off.
Both utilities are working to increase awareness of assistance programs, including millions of dollars in federal money that has been allocated to help those in need with their utility bills in Massachusetts.
The largest program is the “low income home energy assistance program,” commonly known as “fuel assistance.” It is available to homeowners and renters, including renters who don’t get separately billed for heat.
Eligibility of fuel assistance is based on household size and income. For example, a household of four qualifies with an income up to about $78,000.
A program created during the pandemic called the “emergency rental assistance program,” known as ERAP, also helps eligible households by paying off overdue utility bills.
Navigating the system isn’t always easy, and some in need of assistance may not be aware of available resources. (If you or someone you know needs help, one good source for help is the networks of community action agencies arrayed across the state. Here’s a list that includes the names of the action agencies for every city and town in the state.)
And even though the moratorium on service cutoffs, imposed by executive order by the Baker administration at the beginning of the pandemic, expired in July, low-income families remain protected against shutoffs if they are seriously ill or have a baby under 12 months old at home. Elders also are protected against shutoff.