Earthjustice filed a petition today for emergency rulemaking by the state’s utility regulator, the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC). The petition asks the PSC to stop utilities from disconnecting customers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Under Florida law, the PSC will have 30 days to respond.
Earthjustice filed the legal action on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and Zoraida Santana, a member of LULAC.
Ms. Santana lost her source of income shortly after the pandemic started, and was only recently able to restart her job. Ms. Santana spent the last several months at home, caring for her disabled children, and her doctor warned her not to risk exposure to COVID-19 since her disabled children could be vulnerable to complications if they were exposed. Financial necessity has forced her to return to work despite these warnings.
“If they cut off my power, I’ll have no choice but to move with my four children in with my father — and he has no extra room for us, so it looks like we’ll be living on his floor,” Ms. Santana said.
Even though Ms. Santana is employed now, she and her partner, Mr. Jesse Moody, are over $2,000 behind on their electric utility bill because they lost income during the COVID-19 crisis. Duke Energy Florida has put them on a bill repayment plan, but they cannot afford the payments and are at risk of imminent disconnection now that Duke has resumed disconnecting customers.
“They have applied for assistance with their utility bill everywhere they can, but all funds for customer assistance have been depleted,” said Earthjustice attorney Bradley Marshall.
Shortly after the onset of the COVID-19 crises, all utilities in Florida voluntarily suspended utility disconnections for nonpayment. Although the crisis has only worsened over the last couple of months as unemployment assistance has been cut off, utilities have begun again to disconnect customers. Like Ms. Santana, hundreds of thousands of Floridians are affected.
Under state law, the Florida Public Service Commission has a charge “to promote the convenience and welfare of the public.”
“It is a matter of public welfare to make sure Florida utilities don’t cut people’s electricity off during a public health and economic crisis,” Marshall said. “We know how hot September and October can be, and if people aren’t able to cool off in their homes, they will have to congregate elsewhere. Given the ongoing COVID infection rate, that’s not a wise idea. To protect public health, people need to be able to cool off in their own homes.”
Duke and Tampa Electric Company (TECO) have restarted disconnections, and Florida Power & Light Co. and Gulf Power Co. have announced that they imminently plan to restart disconnections.
“We are petitioning the Florida Public Service Commission to use its emergency rulemaking powers to grant relief to the hundreds of thousands of Floridians and save them from disconnection,” Marshall said. “The PSC has already granted Florida utilities economic relief by agreeing to make their shareholders whole from the current crisis. We believe the Public Service Commission should also be looking out for customers.”