Over 100 federal lawmakers on Wednesday demanded a nationwide moratorium on utility shutoffs with a letter to congressional leadership demanding the freeze be part of the next coronavirus relief package to ensure Americans have access to services that are "essential to survive during this health crisis."
Spearheaded by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), the letter addresses not only water but other utility services including electricity, heating, telecommunications, and internet—all "especially critically" amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The call comes as over 16 million Americans have been thrown out of work in recent weeks, the need for continued public health measures to stem the spread of coronavirus means many workplaces remain closed, and millions of people are still waiting for their one-time $1,200 stimulus checks.
In their letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the lawmakers write:
Water service ensures that Americans can handwash and disinfect surfaces necessary to slow and stop the coronavirus outbreak. Electricity is necessary for families to turn on the lights and have refrigerated food to eat. Internet access is essential for many employees to be able to work from home and for children who are out of school to access educational resources. Millions working service jobs on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic are facing disconnection.
Demands in the letter include a pause on utility shutoffs "for at least six months beyond the end date of the national state of emergency," reconnection for those who've already had services cut off, and an erasure of late fees for low-wealth families through the six-month period.
The letter adds:
The COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted the systemic problems of poverty and utility insecurity in the United States and its disparate impact on low-wealth communities and communities of color. When Congress enacts legislation to speed the economic recovery of our country, it should prioritize permanently increasing the economic security for low-wealth individuals. Priority should go to building infrastructure to support distributed renewable energy, safe water systems, and broadband access in rural areas.
The new letter was welcomed by advocacy group Food & Water Action, which urged congressional leaders to act swiftly.
"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 with 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."
Food & Water Action was one of 830 advocacy groups who on Monday made a similar demand to congressional leadership regarding utility shutoffs in the next relief package.
Those groups noted that while a utility shutoff moratorium is needed, congressional action should go beyond that, as a pause in shutoffs "does not tackle the systemic issues driving these all-too-common utility injustices across America."
We therefore urge you to invest significant stimulus funds into long-term solutions, including funding and financing for distributed clean energy systems and funding for percentage-of-income payment plans for municipal water systems, broadband, and other utility services, which enhance the long-term energy, water, and utility resilience for all communities, in particular low-wealth households, communities of color, and tribes across the country.
It's time for a people-friendly, not big business-friendly, legislative package to help ordinary Americans facing economic pain, said Jean Su, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's energy justice program, one of the groups behind the letter.
"It's unconscionable that Senate Republicans chose to protect corporate America over families in the last rescue package," Su said in a Monday statement. "Families are facing impossible choices between paying for food or electricity, water, or healthcare."