The world looked very different two weeks ago. Most kids were in school everyday, most people traveled into their workplace, and most gathered with family and friends in their free time. But the COVID-19 pandemic has rapidly and radically altered our day to day lives.

After a week of school closures and self- or company-imposed social-distancing, Illinois residents have now been told officially to “stay at home” until April 7.[1] As bars, salons, bookstores, and other non-essential businesses slow and close their operations, hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans will be furloughed, laid-off, and relegated to their homes for weeks to come.

When staying at home is critical to public health[2], keeping homes habitable, workable, and safe is also critical--and Illinois policymakers agree. Urged by Governor Pritzker, the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) ordered all public gas, electricity, water and sewage utilities in the state of Illinois to cease disconnections and waive late fees until May 1, or until the state of emergency is lifted. The emergency order requires all public utilities to adopt a more flexible approach to credit and collections. In two seperate orders, the ICC also prohibited alternative retail electric and gas suppliers from making in-person solicitations during this period.[3]

Unfortunately this order does not apply to municipal-owned utilities or cooperatives, who do not fall under the jurisdiction of the ICC. However, several of them have decided to institute similar policies--you may find a list of non-municipal Illinois utilities here--and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul has issued a statement encouraging consumers to contact his office about utility service shut-offs or disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Adopting these policies is an important step, but it's also important that utilities let customers know about these policies and how customers will be impacted by them. This past week I spent hours going through the websites and social media pages of Illinois utilities and cooperatives to find out about their COVID-19 responses. Unfortunately, it was difficult, if not impossible, to track down an official statement from quite a few of them. During this public health emergency, utilities customers shouldn’t have to spend an hour scouring the internet or calling a shuttered office or an under-staffed help-line to find out whether they’ll have their service shut off for a missed payment.

In order to disseminate information on their COVID-19 responses , all utilities should:

  • Include a notification in the next monthly bill for both mailed bills and e-bills

  • Create a banner on their website homepage with information about the moratorium’s nature, time frame, and a link to a more detailed information

  • Create a website page providing detailed information on:

    • How the moratorium will affect service disconnections & late-fees

    • For how long it will stand

    • Whether COVID-19 will impact other services provided, e.g. customer requests, home visits, bill payments

    • What customers should do if they are struggling to pay their bills

    • Any financial assistance programs the utility offers

    • How to look out for potential COVID-19 scams

  • Issue a press release with information about their COVID-19 response & moratorium to local English and Spanish news outlets

  • Publish social media posts announcing disconnection moratorium:

    • with information about the moratorium’s nature, time frame, and a link to a more detailed information

  • Provide all information in English and Spanish, and in certain areas, other languages depending on the local population

Given the rapidly-changing nature of the COVID-19 situation and the myriad stressors that Illinoisans will face over the coming weeks, it is vital that all Illinois utilities, including municipally-owned utilities and cooperatives, follow the ICC’s lead and suspend disconnections until the end of this public health emergency. And, it is equally as important that they provide clear, readily-available information on their COVID-19 responses to all of their customers.

[1] https://www2.illinois.gov/sites/coronavirus/FAQ/Pages/Stay-At-Home-FAQS.aspx

[2] https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2020/03/416906/why-experts-are-urging-social-distancing-combat-coronavirus-outbreak
[3] https://www.icc.illinois.gov/home/covid-19