Georgia Power ends pandemic moratorium on collecting bill payments

Atlanta-based Georgia Power has restarted electricity disconnections for customers who haven't agreed to special installment plans to eliminate unpaid bill balances from earlier in the coronavirus pandemic. The MATT KEMPNER / AJC
Atlanta-based Georgia Power has restarted electricity disconnections for customers who haven't agreed to special installment plans to eliminate unpaid bill balances from earlier in the coronavirus pandemic. The MATT KEMPNER / AJC

130,000-plus customers get six months to catch up unpaid electric bills

Georgia Power’s moratorium on disconnecting homes for non-payment has ended, even as the pandemic rolls on.

Beginning this month, 132,000 customers of the state’s dominant power company must begin paying down past-due balances that built up during the economic distress caused by pandemic. Otherwise, customers face having their electricity cut off, as tens of thousands already experienced.

As many jobs went into hibernation, the state’s Public Service Commission backed and later extended Georgia Power’s decision in March to halt disconnecting customers. Later, the PSC’s five elected commissioners unanimously lifted the moratorium, effective July 15.

Some activists warned that many Georgians were still without jobs or were working fewer hours because of COVID-19′s gut-punch to the economy. Low-wage and hourly front-line workers have been those most likely to have jobs disrupted.

But with the moratorium over, Georgia Power shut-off electricity to just over 40,000 customers from mid-July through August, say company reports. August’s number was about 25% higher than for a typical month. Most of those cut off didn’t jump into the special payment option, which the company said it aggressively publicized.

Electricity was eventually restored in the vast majority of the cases, according to the company. Georgia Power has about 2.6 million customers.

Typically, customers don’t face disconnections until they are at least 60 days behind on what they owe.

Under the repayment program Georgia Power put in place, customers have six months — until March — to pay the entire amount. They won’t have to pay late fees. In typical times, the company only offers installment plans on a case-by-case basis, and it said they are usually for far shorter periods.

“I commend them for not turning off the power,” said Brandy Wilcoxson, a 42-year-old single mom with two special-needs kids at home.

But the east Atlanta resident said she doesn’t think Georgia Power or the PSC are doing enough. Paying her bill will be tough, she said. "It’s dreadful. You want to put all your money toward it but you can’t because something else will collapse.”

Her $13-an-hour shifts as an armed guard were eliminated for months during the pandemic. Unemployment benefits helped, but didn’t last long enough, she said. When work started again, her hours were limited initially.

She faces about $800 in Georgia Power back-charges. Wilcoxson will pay about $130 a month extra. She is also $3,000 behind on rent for a two-bedroom home with a faulty air conditioning unit that she usually keeps off.

Company spokesman John Kraft wrote in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “Georgia Power has recognized the extraordinary burden our customers have faced due to impacts from the coronavirus, and we continue to work to help all customers maintain service.”

The company also increased and reallocated some of its community giving to help people in need, Kraft wrote.

Wan Smith of the Partnership for Southern Equity, a community organization, questioned why the elected public service commissioners didn’t get Georgia Power to cover some or all of what customers owe. The company, a state-enforced monopoly with rates set by the PSC, generated $1.7 billion in profits last year. It has remained profitable this year, though its finances dipped compared to the same periods in 2019.

PSC spokesman Tom Krause said businesses expect to be paid for the services they’ve provided. He said the moratorium on disconnections was lifted as the local job market was improving, and commissioners were concerned that customers were piling up large amounts of power bill debt.

Meanwhile, the PSC voted to clear the way to eventually allow Georgia Power to pass onto customers charges for other business expenses the company incurred as part of the pandemic.

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