State regulators in Connecticut have assessed a $4.5 million fine against a utility company that was accused of attempting to garnish the wages of customers during the COVID-19 pandemic without first informing them of the availability of payment plans, which was required under state law.
A copy of the decision, for which the utility has 20 days to request a hearing, in the matter against Avangrid, the parent company of United Illuminating, Southern Connecticut Gas, and Connecticut Natural Gas, can be accessed by clicking here.
PURA, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority in Connecticut, instituted a plan in April 2020, requiring regulated entities to offer customers who requested financial assistance the option to enter a payment program — essentially allowing them to pay what they could, when they could. The utilities were required to proactively contact customers when the missed their first payment and provide information about the program.
Following an eight-month investigation, the utility company was found to have filed more than 200 applications for wage garnishments against customers who did not pay their bills during the pandemic. The company stopped filing new lawsuits when the pandemic was declared, but continued pursuing collection activities against those it had sued before the pandemic. The company allegedly instructed the collection firm it used to provide information about the payment program to customers except those that already had a judgment against them.
The company was also accused of having knowledge that the collection agency it placed accounts with reported information about consumers to the credit reporting agencies. State law in Connecticut requires that individuals be notified if their information is going to be shared with credit reporting agencies.
For each of the alleged violations, PURA is seeking a fine of $10,000 — the maximum it is allowed to seek.
“The Companies maintain that they have respected and complied with the moratorium, and that the collection activity involving the accounts that are the subject of the investigation pre-dated the moratorium,” said a spokesman for the utility companies in a published report. “Caring for our customers is the highest priority for UI, SCG and CNG, and reflecting our commitment to help them during these challenging times, the companies continue to offer energy assistance programs and payment plans for those facing difficulties paying their bills.”