With more than a quarter of Americans reporting lost income as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, over 830 national justice groups are demanding Congress center working people's needs in the next coronavirus relief package by ensuring support for people across the country struggling to pay their utility bills.
Groups including the Center for Biological Diversity, 350.org, and the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign signed a letter to congressional leaders, calling on lawmakers to implement a nationwide moratorium on utility shutoffs. Access to water, broadband, electricity, and other essential utilities in homes must be maintained during the coronavirus pandemic to support public health, the groups said.
"While we thank Congress for the CARES Act's inclusion of important paycheck and eviction protection measures, the act unfortunately failed to include any moratorium on shut-offs of the basic utility services that families need to survive and protect themselves during this health pandemic," the letter reads. "Utility services must be retained to ensure basic family survival and to fight the health pandemic at ground zero."
The Center for Biological Diversity called on supporters to sign a petition demanding the moratorium.
Tell Congress to stop utilities from cutting off water, electricity and broadband to families during this crucial time for fighting the novel coronavirus. https://t.co/Yr4bGqIbFJ
— Center for Bio Div (@CenterForBioDiv) April 10, 2020
The groups sent the letter after the passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which included $500 billion for large corporations but failed to include a moratorium on utility shutoffs, making low-income families vulnerable to losing water access and other necessities.
"It's unconscionable that Senate Republicans chose to protect corporate America over families in the last rescue package," said Jean Su, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s energy justice program. "Families are facing impossible choices between paying for food or electricity, water, or healthcare."
Water shutoffs, the groups noted, could make it harder for families to fight the spread of the coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, as frequent hand-washing is one of the top recommendations for stopping transmission.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Twitter last week demanded to know how utility shutoffs were acceptable during a public health crisis.
"How the hell are you supposed to wash your hands during a pandemic when your water has been shut off?" Sanders asked.
How the hell are you supposed to wash your hands during a pandemic when your water has been shut off?
We must require utility companies to restore services to all who have been disconnected, and prohibit all new shutoffs until this crisis is over. https://t.co/bfY5eRO2hk
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— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) April 9, 2020
"There is absolutely no excuse left for Congress to exclude basic human needs from the next coronavirus stimulus package, or in general," said Rianna Eckel, senior national water organizer at Food & Water Action. "People are facing the reality of living through a summer without running water right now. We need national action to protect every single person in this country from inhumane utility shutoffs, nothing less."
"Now more than ever it is clear that access to core services like water, electricity, and broadband is a human right."
—Johanna Bozuwa, Democracy Collaborative.
The letter comes as the U.S. unemployment rate stands at 13%, according to economists—the worst since the Great Depression. The Department of Labor announced at the beginning of April that 17 million Americans successfully filed jobless claims in the past four weeks as the pandemic forced businesses across the country to shut down.
Any upcoming relief package must include the reconnection of utilities for any household that has experienced a shutoff and the forgiveness of bill payments and late fees for low-wealth households, the groups wrote. Actions by states and some utility companies in recent weeks have given relief from shutoffs to more than half of the U.S. population—but advocates say that support must be extended to all Americans.
In addition to relief for struggling families, the groups called on Congress to invest heavily in long-term funding for clean energy systems and percentage-of-income payment plans for water, electricity, and other utilities to help prevent families from being financially overburdened to pay for necessities.
According to the letter, about 1% of American households experienced utility shutoffs within the past three months, before the pandemic caused the current unemployment crisis. The average water utility disconnected water access for about 5% of households due to non-payment in 2016, affecting about 15% of Americans, and nearly a quarter of households do not have internet at home.
"Lacking access to these essential utility services disproportionately harms low-wealth communities, communities of color, and tribes," reads the letter. "Moreover, the climate emergency has exacerbated the country's extreme weather conditions—through unprecedented wildfires, heat waves, and increased frequency and intensity of storms—that necessitate a greater demand in electricity, water, and broadband services for survival and to maintain a basic standard of living, most especially in American Indian and Alaska Native and rural regions."
Now that the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the precarity in which millions of Americans live, the groups said, Congress must take immediate action make sure all households can access utilities.
"Now more than ever it is clear that access to core services like water, electricity, and broadband is a human right," said Johanna Bozuwa of the Democracy Collaborative. "Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States was confronted with a utility shutoff crisis, particularly in communities of color."
"Congress needs to step up and secure access for all," said Bozuwa, "as well as make long-term commitments to affordable, more resilient systems by investing in renewable energy, cleaning up our water systems, and expanding broadband access."