By Brigitte Wynn, director of Revenue Operations, PSEG Long Island
PSEG Long Island’s Revenue Operations team knows how tough it can be to make ends meet. We process payments for our 1.1 million customers on Long Island and in the Rockaways, handle revenue reporting, perform collections and much more. While there’s no doubt that payments are a big part of our job, our customers are most important. We know that if there’s a residential account that has overdue payments (arrears), it most likely means there’s a person or family facing a hardship.
We choose to define ourselves by what we do to help these households. And you may be surprised by what we do.
For our low-income customers, hardships frequently extend far beyond an unpaid electric bill. We employ a team of consumer advocates to support them at a more holistic level. These dedicated employees not only explain PSEG Long Island’s financial assistance programs, they also inform customers of county and state programs, and help them file applications for things like heating oil assistance and food stamps. Helping these households find and apply for these programs increases the probability they will achieve the financial stability to pay future bills. During a normal year, these advocates, frequently stationed at social service offices and partnered agencies across the service area, help about 1,000 customers take steps toward a more steady future.
When the pandemic struck, the world turned on its head and economic chaos ensued. Jobs were eliminated. Many working parents with school-age children had to choose between a paycheck and taking care of their kids at home. Amidst all of this, a state of emergency was declared, which included a moratorium on utilities shutting off customers for nonpayment of bills.
While that statewide decision took a lot of immediate pressure off the shoulders of struggling New Yorkers, it also set up a new problem for our customers with outstanding account balances: If they allowed their payments to lapse during the entire moratorium, their balances could grow very large by the time it ended.
From the beginning, we had a strong obligation to help prevent as many families as possible from letting a problem grow into a crisis. Our consumer advocates immediately shifted from in-person contacts to phone, email and Zoom outreaches to continue providing the guidance and support our customers in need. We deployed QR codes and built a flexible website that allowed for up-to-the-minute program changes and information about offerings like state relief programs, FEMA funeral assistance and tribal nation assistance, to name a few.
We have sent letters, emails and made phone calls. We kept language on our bills informing people of their arrears situation, in large part because we knew that customers would need it as proof to receive certain new kinds of state-administered financial relief.
Once the statewide moratorium ended, even though we postponed resuming shutoffs, we conducted face-to-face outreach to help as many customers as possible enter deferred payment agreements, which prevents shutoffs. These face-to-face efforts have helped more than 10,000 customers enter into a deferred payment agreement.
Our objective in this extensive outreach was to help our customers navigate a constantly changing ecosystem of support and relief programs being offered as county and state governments raced to address the pandemic’s economic toll.
When an unprecedented state-administered program was established to provide eligible households up to $10,000 in utility arrears forgiveness, we mobilized to get the word out to as many customers as possible. We hosted a series of webinars that connected with more than 1,000 customers, promoting the webinars on social media and with flyers at various social services agencies with whom we work. Our Consumer Advocacy team made thousands of phone calls to encourage customers to apply. We sent out a press release, took out ads in local print publications and advertised on social media.
The combination of our efforts and New York State’s own outreach resulted in more than 7,000 of our customers benefiting from this unique program – receiving $20 million of the $150 million total utility aid available statewide.
Our extensive outreach has been held up as an example to other companies. In December 2021, the Public Utility Law Project, a nonprofit that has advocated for customers and worked with utilities throughout New York State since 1981, wrote to the state Department of Public Service, saying, “Utilities should proactively and publicly inform customers of the arrears program through press releases to local media outlets and post on social media (Facebook, etc.) on the model of PSEG Long Island.”
Our customers have even called our Call Center to thank us for our outreach efforts, because they might not otherwise have taken advantage of these new programs and received the relief they needed.
Today, our work continues with as much urgency as it has during the past two years. If your household is still struggling with bills, if your electrical account has an outstanding balance, we understand. We are here to help you. A deferred payment agreement tailored to your household will protect you from shutoffs, and that is one piece of the larger puzzle. We know the full spectrum of financial assistance programs and can help you contact those agencies. Call us today at 1-800-490-0025, and together we can take steps toward making things a little better for your household.