WASHINGTON – More than 600 utility-justice, environmental, racial justice, labor, and faith groups delivered a letter today to President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris urging their administration to halt utility shutoffs nationwide to protect public health.
The No Shutoffs Coalition, which has advocated for a federal moratorium on utility shutoffs since the COVID-19 crisis began, presented Biden with a draft Executive Order that would instruct the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to use her authority under the Public Health Service Act to enact a national moratorium on residential disconnections of all water, electricity, broadband, heat and other necessary utility services for nonpayment.
The proposed order, which would also mandate safe restoration to previously disconnected homes, would last the full duration of the COVID national emergency and at least 12 months following its end.
“No American—regardless of the color of their skin, their zip code, or their income—should ever have to choose between heating their homes, keeping the lights on, the broadband they need to work or learn remotely, and putting food on the table. That’s especially true in the middle of a global pandemic, where public health experts are emphasizing how important it is that each of us stay home to stay safe,” said U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley. “While many states and utility companies have stepped up to do the right thing, many families are still just a missed payment away from losing critical utilities in the middle of this public health and economic emergency. For all of us to get through this together we need to have a national disconnection moratorium that ensures that no family is left behind in the patchwork of policies.”
“For months I have been leading the fight in Washington to ensure that no person goes without water in their home during this pandemic and beyond, because water is life now and always,” said U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib. “We know that water and other utility shutoffs disproportionately hurt our neighbors of color, and that it’s no coincidence these disparately impacted groups are also facing the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to fight both this deadly virus and deepening economic and social inequality, the Biden Administration must use its power to enact a nationwide utility shutoff moratorium and immediate water service line reconnection as soon as possible. I am also pushing for the $1.5 billion fund I created under the Emergency Water is a Human Right Act to be enacted, which assists low-income households make their water payments.”
This letter follows the October call from the House Oversight’s Subcommittee on Environment Chair Harley Rouda and Vice Chair Tlaib to outgoing CDC Director Robert Redfield to issue a national water shutoff moratorium. Director Redfield sent a letter to organizations to advise people who experience water shutoffs to use hand sanitizer or dirty water for handwashing. Rep. Tlaib has been advocating for a national shutoff moratorium since March and was lead sponsor of the Emergency Water Is a Human Right Act to create a $1.5 billion low-income water assistance fund with a moratorium on water and power shutoffs. Senator Merkley introduced the Senate version of the legislation and last April led a 113 Congress member letter in support of a nationwide shutoff moratorium.
The push for executive action comes after Congress’s failure to enact a moratorium in the COVID relief bill passed in December, despite its inclusion in the House of Representatives’ HEROES Act and broad support from Senate Democrats. While Congress did allot $6 billion in additional funding toward electricity bill relief, that funding does not meet the scale of the crisis. The late December omnibus spending bill included $638 million for a new low-income water assistance program — far short of need.
Due to COVID-19 and record unemployment, utility shutoffs remain a severe crisis impacting millions of working American families. Black, Indigenous, and Latinx families are disproportionately impacted.
“There are few basic necessities more important than the ability to turn your lights on,” said Patrisse Cullors, Co-Founder/Executive Director of the Black Lives Matter Global Network. “The fact that families during a global pandemic do not have the peace of mind to know their power won’t be cut is not good enough. We need a national utility shutoff moratorium just like we need an eviction moratorium. Now more than ever, we need to keep people safe and secure in their homes.”
Federal action is necessary in the absence of state protections. More than half of the U.S. population is not protected from water shutoffs. Due to the lack of comprehensive data on shutoffs, we still do not know how many households have lost water service during the pandemic. Last year, more than 600,000 customers were officially at risk of service termination or behind on their water bills in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and North Carolina. Between September and November, the country’s largest private water utility, American Water, disconnected over 12,000 households, affecting an estimated 32,000 people, in just three states. Providers in Florida shut off tens of thousands of households over the summer.
“The public health crisis created by this pandemic has exacerbated long-standing racial and economic injustices,” said Rianna Eckel, senior national organizer at Food & Water Watch. “A national moratorium on utility shutoffs will help protect us from a deadly pandemic, and provide emergency relief for families struggling with basic necessities. The Biden-Harris administration should take immediate action that will help working families and protect public health.”
Nearly 80 million people in the U.S. do not have adequate broadband at home, and poor families and communities of color are disproportionately affected by this digital divide. Moreover, 30 percent of low-income people of color report missing an internet payment in the early months of the pandemic, while roughly half are worried about paying for upcoming internet and phone bills.
“During this pandemic, internet connectivity is a literal lifeline for families,” said Dana Floberg, policy manager at Free Press Action. “But untold numbers of people are having those lifelines cut in the midst of a global health crisis because they can’t afford the bills charged by extremely profitable internet providers. Blocking internet shutoffs means ensuring all families can connect to virtual learning, remote work, telehealth appointments, and critical information for participating in our democracy.”
Only five states retain a moratorium on electricity shutoffs. In November last year alone, nearly 30,000 households in North Carolina had their power shut off by electricity giants Duke Energy and Dominion Energy. Similarly, nearly 40,000 households in Georgia and 35,000 households in Indiana were disconnected in the immediate aftermath of state moratia expiration.
“America’s utility shutoffs crisis is a human rights crisis,” said Jean Su, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s energy justice program. “Private power utilities are disconnecting thousands of families every month, while continuing to reward shareholders. President Biden must use his executive power to put working America over corporate America on his first day in office.”
“For almost a year amidst a deadly pandemic, many in Congress have blocked basic utility shutoff protections, ignored the will of the people and endangered countless communities. On day one, the Biden administration must bring us closer to realizing water justice by stopping utility shut-offs and prioritizing people, not corporations,” said Alissa Weinman, associate water campaign director at Corporate Accountability.
As a Senator, Harris supported a national water shutoff moratorium, co-sponsoring the Emergency Water Is a Human Right Act and co-authoring a powerful opinion piece with Dolores Huerta that called for “a national moratorium on water shutoffs and implement a water affordability program so that no one must choose between water and other necessities.” Stopping utility shutoffs would have clear public health benefits: A study from Duke in June found that water and utility shutoff moratoria reduced the average growth rate of COVID by 2.6%.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.