Wash those hands? Sure, as long as the water stays on.
Wash those hands? Sure, as long as the water stays on. Moyo Studio/Getty Images

Right around when Washington state started to shut down and stay in, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a moratorium on utility shut-offs. Utility companies could not shut off water, power, or disconnect phones. Bills would still be due for utility payments but while the moratorium was in effect residents wouldn't have to worry about immediately losing power or water. The moratorium has been extended before, but time on the current order is running out.

It's set to expire this coming Sunday and, so far, there has been no action by Inslee. Organizations across Washington, like the Sierra Club, Puget Sound Sage, Rooted in Rights, and many more, are lobbying Inslee to not only extend the moratorium on shut-offs through the end of the year but also that accrued debts "be eliminated with federal and state funding," Ruth Sawyer with the Sierra Club said during a press conference on Thursday.

The fear is that in a time of economic upheaval, where over one million Washingtonians have filed unemployment, people will have to make the impossible decision of choosing where their limited funds go. Do they pay for food? Or do they pay to keep the lights on? It's an equity issue that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic, Katrina Peterson with Puget Sound Sage said.

Part of the issue, Peterson explained, is that many low-income households aren't tapping into low-income bill assistance for their utilities. Documents filed with state regulators in 2017 showed that Puget Sound Energy was only reaching 13-14 percent of the more than 250,000 of its customers who could qualify for bill assistance in PSE's Home Energy Lifeline Program.

According to Caleb Heeringa, press secretary with the Sierra Club, "not every utility is doing as good as they could to connect folks who qualify to low-income benefits." Part of the 100 percent clean energy bill that the Washington state Legislature passed this year are equity provisions that will force "utilities to do a better job of tracking and connecting consumers with benefits," Heeringa explained. By 2030, under the law, utilities will have to connect 60 percent of eligible customers with benefits by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050.

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However, this moment in time is exposing that inequity more than ever before.

"When households are hit by a utility bill higher than normal they report cutting basic needs like rent, food, medicine, child care, and elder care," Peterson said. "How do we expect people to pay utility bills when they don’t have an income?"

Mike Faulk, Inslee's deputy communications director, indicated that the governor is considering extending the moratorium on utility shut-offs that expires on May 31 and the eviction moratorium that expires on June 4. "Adjustments to both might be made," Faulk hinted. It is unclear when that will happen.

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