The utility companies are about to shut off my utilities because I cannot pay the bills. What should I do?

First, contact the utility company and request an installment payment plan. Certain utility companies, like gas and electricity, are required by law to work with you to develop a reasonable installment plan if you request it. Electric companies, for example, may consider factors including the amount of the bill, the customer’s ability to pay, payment history, how long the balance has been outstanding and why, and other relevant factors. If you are not able to get the company to offer you a plan you can afford you can appeal the decision to the Public Service Commission and as long as you pay the current bill they cannot terminate your service pending the appeal. 

If you are not able to pay any amount of your utility bills, you may be eligible for low-income energy assistance. The federal government provides funds to West Virginia under the Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIEAP). The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) distributes this federal money. Energy assistance only applies to utilities that are related to heating your home: gas, electricity, oil, wood burning, etc. 

You can submit an application for low-income energy assistance at any Senior Center or local DHHR office. If you meet certain eligibility requirements, DHHR will make payments directly to the gas or electric company. 

The state Public Service Commission (PSC) regulates electricity and gas utility companies. If one of these utilities wants to shut off your service, it must follow certain regulations. First, the utility must mail you a notice that it is shutting off service within 10 days of the cut-off date. Then, it has to attempt to make personal contact with you by telephone 24 hours before service is cut off. 

In certain instances, the utility company may not be allowed to cut off your service. The utility company cannot cut off service without letting you work out an installment plan if doing so would jeopardize the safety of someone in your household. The Public Service Commission has the following list of circumstances when the health or safety of someone would be in danger:  

•during the winter months, 
•if someone in your home is using a dialysis or life-supporting machine, or 
•if a doctor states in writing that cutting off the electricity would be dangerous to your health. 

If you are over 65 years old or you are disabled, the utility company is supposed to contact a relative before cutting off your service. In addition, the utility company has to allow you to pay your bill before it cuts off the service. If a utility worker comes to your house to cut off your service, and you pay the worker the bill, he cannot cut off your service. In addition, the utility company cannot cut off service during non-working hours or on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. 

If you cannot work out an installment plan, you can request a hearing with the utility company. During this hearing, you can try to convince the utility company that your service should not be turned off. 

If you do not agree with the final decision of the utility company, you can appeal the decision to the Public Service Commission. You must do this within seven days of the utility company’s final decision. You can contact the Public Service Commission of WV at 1 (800) 642-8544. As long as the Public Service Commission is looking at your case, the utility company cannot cut off your service. 

If your service does get cut off, you can pay the bill and the utility company has to turn your service back on within eight hours. However, the utility company may charge you a re-connection fee (usually five dollars). 

Keep in mind that these rules and regulations only apply to gas and electric companies. They do not apply to water, phone, or cable television. If you believe you are being treated unfairly by a utility company, contact the Public Service Commission of WV at 1 (800) 642-8544. 

For more information, see: 42 U.S.C. §§ 8621-8629 (2015); 45 C.F.R. §§ 96.80-96.89 (2015); W. Va. C.S.R. §150-3-4(4.8) (2015); W. Va. Public Service Commission, (last visited June 12, 2015); West Virginia Low Income Energy Assistance Program, (last visited June 12, 2015).