Yolanda Matthews from Puget Sound Sage asks Gov. Jay Inslee to lessen the burden on low-income families.
Yolanda Matthews from Puget Sound Sage asks Gov. Jay Inslee to "lessen the burden" on low-income families. Screenshot of Puget Sound Sage's Facebook Livestream

While Gov. Jay Inslee has extended the statewide eviction moratorium through October 15, he still hasn't extended the moratorium on utility shut-offs. Activists from environmental justice groups Puget Sound Sage and the Sierra Club delivered a utility shut-off notice to his front step today to punctuate their request: extend the shut-off and provide bill relief.

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"It feels like a little bit of deja vu," Ruth Sawyer with the Sierra Club said in a press conference on the front steps of the State Capitol building Thursday morning. "This is our third time asking the governor to extend the moratorium and we're actually in a worse off place in terms of the pandemic than we were in the beginning."

Right now, under the existing moratorium that's set to expire this Saturday, August 1, utility companies can not shut off water, power, or disconnect phones. As with all these bandaid moratoriums from the governor, the bills aren't stopping, they're still piling up, but Washingtonians won't have to worry about their power being shut off if they can't pay during the moratorium. If it were to end, "multiple families could see months-worth of utility bills come due," Sawyer said.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not improving in Washington or in the United States. Infection rates have climbed in Washington in the past month. Hospitalizations across age groups have started increasing. Reopening phases have been indefinitely paused.

The moratorium has been renewed at the eleventh hour before, but activists and residents across the state are sweating the possibility that it won't be reinstated this time. They're demanding that Inslee extend it and provide debt relief for low-income families. To illustrate their point, members of Puget Sound Sage delivered a massive utility shut-off notice to the governor's mansion in Olympia today.

Mike Faulk, a spokesperson for Inslee's office, said that the governor has requested that the proclamation be extended and will likely announce an extension before the August 1 expiration date.

"The governor would also like to encourage those who are having trouble paying their bills to contact their utility for access to assistance programs," Faulk wrote in an email. Resources can be found at this link, according to Faulk.

For Katrina Peterson from Puget Sound Sage, those programs aren't enough. "Many families in need slip through the cracks," Peterson said.

According to a study done by Puget Sound Sage that polled 339 community members from the South King County region, prior to the pandemic households hit with a utility bill $50 higher than normal reportedly cut back on essentials like rent and mortgage payments, food, and healthcare in order to keep the lights on.

Puget Sound Energy is only connecting 33 percent of eligible low income households with their bill assistance program, Peterson said. "These programs were failing our communities before COVID-19 hit."

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By 2030, as part of the 100 percent clean energy bill passed in the Washington state Legislature this year, utilities will have to connect 60 percent of eligible customers with benefits by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050. For members of Puget Sound Sage and the Sierra Club, that access isn't coming soon enough.

They would like to see Inslee do something to "lessen the burden," Yolanda Matthews with Puget Sound Sage said.

As the press conference ended, the group, towing a speaker playing Leon Bridges' "River," grabbed their big utility shut-off notice for the governor and walked from the Capitol building to the steps in front of the governor's mansion.

Activists delivered a utility shut-off notice to Inslees doorstep in Olympia today.
Activists delivered a utility shut-off notice to Inslee's doorstep in Olympia today. Courtesy of Puget Sound Sage

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