GOVERNMENT SHUT-DOWN SPIKES LIHEAP DEMAND AS HEATING BILLS PILE UP AROUND THE U.S
Writing and Reporting by Jake Brown
Among the many fall-outs from the longest Government shut-down in U.S. history are the millions of working-and-middle-class contractors and Government employees who have been out-of-work since December in the heart of winter, watching their thermostat rise right alongside the stacks of unpaid bills. Including heating bills, politicians in cold-weather states have been motivated to pick up the slack in their own legislatures. For instance, in Massachusetts, The Inquirer and Mirror reported this month that “a bipartisan group of state lawmakers reached out late last week to Gov. Charlie Baker and asked him to assist state residents at risk of getting the cold shoulder from a federal funding shortfall in the low-income heating assistance program known as LIHEAP…Most of the nearly 48,000 supported oil-heat households have exhausted their fuel assistance benefit and all will have exhausted it by the end of January, leaving them in a perilous position for the rest of the winter...More than 70 House and Senate members joined state Sens. Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester) and Michael Rodrigues (D-Westport ) in requesting a $30 million appropriation meant to shore up shortages in heating fuel access.”
Speaking on the urgency facing his freezing constituents, state Sen. Julian Cyr (D-Cape & Islands), commented that “as the need for fuel assistance is increasing throughout the commonwealth, state legislators and Gov. Baker must work swiftly to make sure that our most vulnerable are protected during these bitter winter months. I am proud to be part of this bipartisan effort to ensure tens of thousands of seniors, veterans and families with children get the help they need.” 1
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr reminded the Federal powers that be that real lives were at stake, specifically “seniors, veterans, families with children and others are counting on our Commonwealth to provide the home heating support they need, particularly in light of the federal reductions.” While Senator Michael J. Rodrigues highlighted the sense of urgency that time was running out, arguing that "this money isn't going to mean much in May or June, so it’s critical that we do this as soon as possible," and Representative William Crocker underscored the imbalance between the reality that “costs are increasing and assistance is decreasing; couple that with the colder than usual winter and you have an extremely dangerous situation. I ask that the Governor act swiftly to provide for more fuel assistance in a supplemental budget."
Speaking directly on the impact from the front lines, the Lynn Economic Opportunity non-profit profiled Marylyn, an 86-year-old senior living with her husband Louis, 94, who explained that even at that age, initially she and her husband were reluctant to accept LIHEAP assistance for the same reason so many others initially do: “I am a proud person, and believe we should all be responsible for ourselves.” Still, as the freezing winds closed in around the log cabin the couple share beside a frozen lake, for as charming as the view might sound in a painting, it was freezing in real life at temperatures that presented a special threat to the health of both elderly recipients, causing them to reach out to L.E.O. about their fuel assistance program in January. A reality for “most of the close to 48,000 oil heat households have exhausted their fuel assistance benefit and all will have exhausted it by the end of January, leaving them in a perilous position for the rest of the winter,” explains Birgitta S. Damon, President of Lynn Economic Opportunity, Inc. & MASSCAP, who added that along with the strain of winter weather and the prolonged shutdown, “households that heat with delivered fuels such as home heating oil are particularly vulnerable. At close to three dollars per gallon for heating oil, the fuel assistance benefit will allow oil heat households to cover the cost of 1¾ tanks of oil — a real and dangerous problem when it takes 3-4 tanks to get a typical household through tough New England winters.”
Picking up the slack all over the frigid Northeast, down in Atlantic City, KYW 1060 AM Newsradio broadcast an important message from Greg Dunlap, PSE&G vice president of customer operations that even the utilities were stepping up to do their part, reasoning that because “the federal government shutdown is a reminder of circumstances in which our customers can face financial hardships, during the 60-day period, customer accounts will be locked and protected from shut off.” Atlantic City Electric spokesman Frank Tedesco added for his company’s part that “we do have a budget billing program for customers to make their payments easier to budget month-to-month. We have payment arrangements available for our customers as well… Atlantic City Electric offers a number of other programs, including the Universal Service Fund, New Jersey SHARES, and the Payment Assistance for Gas and Electric (PAGE), which appears to be a good fit for the furloughed. It helps people with low to moderate income who are going through a temporary financial crisis.”
In the Nation’s capitol, leading utility Washington Gas took to the airwaves to make sure the public knew they were not looking to make life any harder on those struggling with the shutdown to make their energy bills on time, with Adrian Chapman, President and CEO of WG, reassuring impacted households that “as the shutdown of the Federal Government continues, Washington Gas announced Tuesday, January 8, 2019 that it will offer: flexible payment arrangements for government employees directly impacted and work with affected employees so that they continue to receive their natural gas service without interruption…. With hundreds of thousands of people impacted by the ongoing federal government shutdown, Pepco is taking steps to expand awareness of the programs in place to help customers stay energized through temporary or extended financial hardship. Pepco works closely with state, federal, and nonprofit partners to ensure they have the information and support they need to help customers manage their energy expenses during times of hardship.”
In Pennsylvania, Duquesne Light Company utilized the same strategy via its own press office to make sure their customers knew the utility was on the side of the customer, Michael Selep, Universal Services Manager at Duquesne Light, shining a bright one on the message they were spreading that “with winter weather hitting the region we like to remind all of our customers that help is available if they are having trouble paying their bill. And, as the federal government shutdown continues into a fourth week, we know there may be even more customers in our service territory who could benefit from these long-standing energy assistance programs that DLC offers.”
Hitting the Midwest just as hard, the Chicago Sun Times highlighted Warming Centers being opened around the city, noting that “with temperatures in the single digits and wind chill values as low as 30 degrees below zero expected over the next week, Chicagoans struggling to keep warm have some options. Several state-owned buildings, including 113 community centers, libraries and police stations, open their doors to anyone during daytime hours to provide relief from the cold,” noting of another lifeline that “for federal workers struggling to pay their heating bills during the partial government shutdown, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) is offering winter heating assistance to qualified government employees through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).” ComEd added in their own note of support that “we are committed to providing affordable energy service for every customer. Through our own programs, as well as programs offered by community and government partners, we can help customers make ends meet during tough times.”
Native American Tribes were feeling the freezing affect of both the weather and corresponding gap in badly needed funding for energy assistance that the shut-down was holding up, with the popular radio program Native American Calling reporting that “heating bills are projected to be a little higher this winter according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Winter Fuels Outlook. Expect to pay around 3 percent more if you heat with electricity, 5 percent more for gas and 20 percent more for home heating oil. The main reason for the increase is the higher fuel costs. In states like Alaska, North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, where temperatures can drop to -40 and lower, heating costs are a major burden and even a safety issue. Tribal programs like the Gwich’in Solar and Energy Efficiency in the Arctic Project and U.S. Government aid, like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), are designed to offset the high costs of heating.”
All the way across the country, in the Pacific Northwest, the powers that be at the largest utility in the biggest city center in Washington state were aggressively checking in with customers, telling Seattle.gov on “the 20th consecutive day of a federal government shutdown…(that) according to the United States Office of Personnel Management, over 10,000 people in Seattle are employed by the federal government, and many of those folks may be affected by the shutdown and missing their normal paychecks. If you are among them—or if you are just having a hard time making ends meet—Seattle City Light has payment plans and assistance programs that may help you.”
This spirit of cooperation where the Federal Government could find none was alive and well around the entire United States throughout the first month of the new year, sending a powerful reminder that in spite of political differences, there was no dispute over the real-life difference energy assistance programs like LIHEAP were making during this time of economic crisis for millions of working-and-middle-class Americans. With a 3-week continuing resolution just announced to re-open the Government till mid-February, while tens of thousands of affected families around the country race to play catch-up with their outstanding utility and other household bills, LIHEAP once again has served as a vital link between desperation and hope for millions during this frigid winter.