Claims of CT customers sued for unpaid bills during COVID are ‘misleading,’ utility companies say

Photo of Luther Turmelle
Avangrid Networks headquarters in Orange. As Sen. Richard Blumenthal on Monday called for Connecticut utility regulators to investigate, the energy providers said the accusations are “misleading.”

Avangrid Networks headquarters in Orange. As Sen. Richard Blumenthal on Monday called for Connecticut utility regulators to investigate, the energy providers said the accusations are “misleading.”

Avangrid Networks / Contributed photo

Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal urged utility regulators on Monday to open an investigation into claims the state’s energy providers wrongly sued customers for unpaid bills during the height of the pandemic.

However, the utility companies continued to deny the accusations, calling them “misleading.”

Blumenthal criticized what he called “draconian utility collection practices” used by Eversource Energy, Avangrid and their subsidiaries in a letter his office sent Monday to Marissa Gillet, chairwoman of the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

Blumenthal’s letter came a little more than two weeks after the state’s Office of Consumer Counsel petitioned PURA for an investigation.

“While households were facing a financial crisis, Eversource Energy and Avangrid were looking to increase their revenue on the backs of consumers who could not afford to pay their electric bills,” Blumenthal’s letter said. “The pandemic — with families advised to stay home in order to protect themselves and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and unemployment soaring to record levels — increased this economic stress. It is therefore highly inexcusable for utility companies to aggressively pursue residents who were already having trouble meeting their financial obligations.”

Connecticut’s two largest utility companies obtained more than 300 court judgments and nearly 100 wage garnishments against customers who fell behind on their bills over the last two years, records provided by the OCC show. Those collection efforts came at a time when state officials issued orders seeking to assist vulnerable and low-income residents affected by the COVID pandemic.

“Senator Blumenthal does not have the facts straight — Eversource has not pursued any judgments and/or wage garnishments during COVID,” Tricia Modifica, a spokesperson for Eversource Energy, said Monday in a statement.

“On March 13, 2020, we voluntarily stopped all collection activities — including efforts to seek new judgments for historically owed balances,” Modifica said. “Judgments and wage garnishments are always a last resort when we’re working with customers on overdue balances. We continue to proactively guide customers to the very best programs, protections and energy assistance available to them to get relief for and resolve their past due balances.”

The claims made by the OCC, which represents the interests of utility ratepayers, are misleading, according to Gage Frank, a spokesperson for Avangrid, which is the parent company of United Illuminating as well as Connecticut Natural Gas and Southern Connecticut Gas.

“The judgments obtained, which the Office of Consumer Counsel referenced during this time, were for pre-pandemic claims that continued through the court system when the courts reopened,” Frank said. “From the commencement of the COVID pandemic, we have worked with our most vulnerable customers offering various payment plans to assist them during this time. However, not all customers took advantage of these plans and continued to accumulate unpaid balances.”

The customers whose unpaid balances continued to grow were referred to Avangrid’s collections firm, “which continued to work with customers to find a payment plan that would work based on the customers’ circumstances,” he said.

No new collections judgments were sought against utility customers during the period covered by the state’s pandemic-related consumer protections, according to Frank.

“United Illuminating, Connecticut Natural Gas and Southern Connecticut Gas were some of the first utility companies in the region to suspend turn-offs due to nonpayment at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “We deeply care about our customers and continue to work with those who have outstanding balances, which also places a burden on other customers.”

luther.turmelle@hearstmediact.com