At least 1 million Floridians face unpaid utility bills and power cutoffs

Roughly 1 million Floridians have been unable to pay utility bills during COVID 19 and fear power disconnections this month that could shut down air-conditioning, lights and appliances, making homes unlivable.

Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, has petitioned Florida utility regulators to impose a 90-day moratorium on such cutoffs, saying many families will be forced from their homes.

While some families might move in with relatives or friends — causing crowded and less safe conditions — others could become homeless.

Earthjustice filed its petition Tuesday before the Florida Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities such as investor-owned electric companies and other entities. The PSC has 30 days to decide whether to grant the petition to halt cutoffs.

Since March, amid massive virus-related unemployment, lockdowns and business closures, Florida’s investor-owned utilities voluntarily did not cut off power for non-payment. But disconnections resumed in September, with utility companies offering various forms of assistance to help customers catch up on arrears.

Florida Power & Light Co. did not provide their data on recent cutoffs.

The Earthjustice petition mirrors the public-safety rationale cited by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for halting evictions for the rest of the year.

The CDC insists that safe shelter is essential to protect citizens from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Likewise, Earthjustice argues that becoming homeless is a likely consequence of having no power for heat, air-conditioning, lights and appliances – pushing households into harm’s way.

“In the midst of this economic and public health calamity, Duke Energy Florida, Tampa Electric Company, and Florida Power & Light Co. have resumed cutting off Floridians’ electricity due to non-payment. Based on the latest data provided by the utilities, these companies may shut off the electricity to over 1 million people in the state,” the petition says, in part. “Electricity is a necessity in Florida, not a luxury, given the extreme weather conditions we face in this state. This is why cutting off electricity has long been recognized as a constructive eviction under Florida law.”

The CDC issued a moratorium on evictions for the rest of the year, but there is none in Florida on utility cutoffs.

Since March, as many as 1.3 million Floridians were jobless, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO).

The unemployed have been drawing up to $275 a week of state-level Unemployment Insurance benefits — the lowest in the nation based on the number of weeks and the amounts paid in unemployment benefits.

The jobless also received weekly federal payments of $600 atop the state benefit through July, then $300 weekly for August, and then the federal payments stopped.

The National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA) reports that as of Sept. 8, 22 states and the District of Columbia had moratoriums on utility cutoffs.

Florida is not and has never been under such a moratorium; instead, its five investor-owned utilities voluntarily stopped cutting off power for non-payment and are now free to resume at their discretion.

Cindy Muir, the Public Service Commission’s director of consumer assistance and outreach, said utility companies that operate in Florida are free to waive disconnections if they wish.

Earthjustice’s petition cites Florida statutes authorizing public utilities to enact emergency rules in the presence of “an immediate danger to the public health, safety, or welfare” and argues that the coronavirus pandemic certainly meets that criteria.

This story first appeared on the website of the Florida Phoenix, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to coverage of state government and politics from Tallahassee.