Damage from virus: Utility bills overwhelm some households

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Mikel Haye poses for a portrait on his stoop, Friday, March 12, 2021, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Haye, who was forced into performing a financial triage after he lost all three of his part-time jobs shortly after the pandemic struck. He was scrambling to pay the bills on a Brooklyn apartment he shares with his unemployed mother and two brothers while deciding how to spend whatever money was left: On food? The car insurance? His phone bill? (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

SAN RAMON, Calif. – Millions of U.S. households are facing heavy past-due utility bills, which have escalated in the year since the pandemic forced Americans hunkered down at home to consume more power.

And now, government moratoriums that for months had barred utilities from turning off the power of their delinquent customers are starting to expire in most states. As result, up to 37 million customers — representing nearly one-third of all households — will soon have to reckon with their overdue power bills at a time when many of them are struggling with lost jobs or income.

A study done by Arcadia, which runs a service that helps households lower utility bills, found that the average past-due amount by those in its network was roughly $850.

The crisis has emerged as one of the repercussions of the recession that was touched off by the viral pandemic. Though the economy has achieved considerable gains in recent months, about 9.5 million jobs remain lost. And many people have lost income even while remaining employed, leaving them unable to buy food, pay rent or afford utility bills.

President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue aid package, enacted into law this month, will provide some support. It includes $5 billion earmarked for people who need help with power and water bills. Combined with other government financing allotted for energy aid since the pandemic began, the total available to help struggling households pay utility bills is about $9.1 billion.

But all that assistance represents just a fraction of the $27 billion in past-due balances of U.S. households, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, which helps low-income consumers. The aid will be distributed through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Caught in the squeeze are people like Paula Desper, who lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with her husband and the youngest two of their five children, ages 7 and 10. Desper worries about how her family will manage once the utility shutoff moratorium lifts soon in Pennsylvania.

“It’s come to the point where I look at a bill, and either I’m going to pay a bill or I’m going to buy food,” said Desper, 45. “I’ve got two little children. I will go without food. My children will not.”