A bill has been introduced in the Senate that would provide $30 billion to utility companies and broadband Internet providers across the country in order to prevent those companies from shutting off services to customers because of unpaid debts, especially those that have accumulated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bill, S. 1783, called the Maintaining Access to Essential Services Act of 2021, was introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley [D-Ore.] yesterday.
The loans would be used to help the utilities continue operating without having to resort to assessing fines and disconnecting customers from access to water, power, and heat. Utilities would be eligible for low-interest loans under the program under the condition that they cancel debts for low-income households.
The loans would become forgivable up to the amount of the outstanding arrearages two years after the pandemic has been declared to be over. If a utility disconnects customers or charges fees for debts incurred during the pandemic, the loans would immediately have to be repaid under the bill.
“Water, power, heat, and internet are basic human needs—and they are especially necessary as families look to rebuild from the pandemic,” said Sen. Merkley in a statement. “The fact that so many families are just one missed payment away from losing access to these utilities is a public emergency that must immediately be met with a national plan to make sure the faucets keep working, lights stay on, and students and workers can log on to school or work.”
It is not exactly known how much unpaid utility debt exists in the United States. One report, which was issued by the National Consumer Law Center earlier this year looked at individuals living in Massachusetts and found that the average amount owed had increased significantly for those who were at least 30 days behind on their bills. In California, 1.6 million households are behind on their water bills due to the pandemic, according to a published report.