Published October 27th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Since the day in August when she lost her job as a preschool teacher, Eboney Allmon has scrambled to keep up with household expenses.
She landed a few interviews for work-from-home jobs, but no offers. She applied for unemployment, but hasn’t received any yet. She braids hair to earn some extra cash.
“Every little bit of change I get I pay on my bills,” Allmon said.
She was $250 behind on payments when Evergy, her electric company, mailed her a notice telling her she risked having her power disconnected. “I was scared,” said Allmon, who lives in Kansas City, Missouri, with her two teenage children and three grandchildren. “My first thought was for my kids.”
Her predicament is shared by thousands of people around the Kansas City region who have lost jobs or seen their hours cut due to economic and health disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have 50 people waiting in the cue right now for utility help,” said Shilo Foster, a case manager at Bishop Sullivan Center, one of a number of agencies in Kansas City that offers assistance.
Many of those people, like Allmon, have never sought assistance before. And many of them owe much more than $250. Moratoriums on shutoffs in the early months of the pandemic helped many customers through those rough times. But their bills were only delayed, not erased.
Now, as winter closes in and a third wave of the pandemic builds, the debts are piling up.
Rachel Casey, executive director of the Community Assistance Council in south Kansas City, said she’s seen utility bills as high as $1,500.
“People put off what they could put off,” she said. “We’re seeing now that people are able to get jobs lined up, but these are the jobs where you just barely make it month to month already, and they’ve gotten into this big hole.”
While much of the attention on the prospect of homelessness during the coronavirus pandemic has focused on evictions, unpaid utility balances loom as large.
Some landlords, notably the Housing Authority of Kansas City, cite overdue utility bills as a reason to summarily evict tenants. Even without a formal proceeding, many families leave their homes when faced with the prospect of going without heat, lights or water. And, like an eviction record, unpaid utility bills can make it nearly impossible to rent a decent place in the future.
“We’ve seen bills in the thousands of dollars,” said Stacy King, director of family and student services at the Center School District in south Kansas City.
Like many other districts in the region, Center struggles to educate students who lose their homes and become transient during the school year.
“I would say the number one reason families are in this situation is their inability to stay current on obligations like utilities,” King said. “It’s what keeps some of our families on someone else’s couch. They can’t afford to catch up enough to secure utilities in a new home.”
Even though her debt was relatively small, Allmon feared the consequences of an unpaid utility balance.
In April, after living for some time with a partner, she had moved into the rental house of her dreams. It has plenty of room for herself, her teenage son and daughter and the three grandchildren who currently live with her. Her landlord told her to “make it your own,” so Allmon painted the walls, hung photos and pictures and created an educational “children’s corner” for Jordhan, her 5-year-old grandson.
At that time, Allmon was working as a preschool teacher. She kept up with her rent and bills. But before long, coronavirus began to wreak havoc on her family.
Jordhan, who until recently was the only grandchild living with Allmon, was able to attend preschool while she worked at another school. But every time he was in contact with a classmate or staffer who tested positive for COVID-19, Jordhan was sent home to quarantine. That meant his grandmother had to stay home and quarantine, too.
After this happened for the third or fourth time, Allmon left her job. “I couldn’t be reliable,” she said.
Allmon’s landlord had secured some government assistance, and used it to cut her $850-a-month rent in half. That helped, but she still fell behind. She stopped paying on her health insurance and life insurance policies. When she saw the shutoff notice from Evergy, she panicked.
“What can I sell?” she asked herself. “What else can I do?”
Being new to the situation, Allmon didn’t realize that a number of programs are in place throughout the area to help with utility payments.
She confided about her trouble to a family advocate at Operation Breakthrough, where Jordhan attends school. The staffer put her in touch with Bishop Sullivan Center.
Allmon’s case was straightforward. She hadn’t sought assistance within the past year and the amount she owed was relatively small. Within a week she learned that Bishop Sullivan had used its emergency assistance funds to bring her Evergy account up to date.
“It was such a blessing,” she said.
Not all cases are resolved so quickly.
Catching a customer up on a utility bill requires extensive documentation of a person’s income and obligations, like rent and child support. “It’s kind of an invasive process,” Casey said.
Especially with bigger bills, caseworkers often must negotiate with utilities to spread out payment plans to reduce monthly bills. And the entire process is made more difficult when it needs to take place remotely, as most agencies are doing in the pandemic.
Many cities and nonprofit groups that received federal CARES Act funds to cope with coronavirus situations have channeled some of that money into utility bill assistance.
Those funds, and the early moratoriums, have kept the numbers of shutoffs in check until now, caseworkers said.
But the CARES Act money must be spent by Dec. 31. John Rich, executive director of the Mid America Assistance Coalition, worries about what will happen after that.
“We anticipate by the first of the year there’s going to be a lot of people in trouble,” Rich said. His agency manages a number of utility aid funds, as well as a common software system for emergency assistance providers throughout the area.
Utility companies are pleading hard times as well. Most of the larger, investor-owned companies in Kansas and Missouri have asked state regulatory commissions for permission to track expenses related to the pandemic, for potential consideration of future rate increases.
In testimony from July, on file at the Missouri Public Service Commission, Darrin Ives, Evergy’s vice president for regulatory affairs, explained that “accounting authority orders” are frequently granted for “extraordinary” events such as floods, tornadoes and ice storms. Ives said the coronavirus pandemic should be considered the equivalent of a natural disaster.
He cited multiple examples of decreased energy usage in the early months of the pandemic, some of which have continued: schools and shops closed, sports stadiums and entertainment venues dark.
“As a result of these actions and the economic impact of COVID-19 on the ability of customers to pay their bills, the company’s arrearages have substantially increased and will continue to rise,” Ives said. “Evergy expects these trends to continue and to result in significantly higher bad debt expense.”
While other investor-owned utilities, including natural gas supplier Spire Missouri, filed testimony on behalf of Evergy’s request, a range of consumer groups, including the Sierra Club, have gone on record in protest. As a result of their objections, Evergy has agreed to exclude lost revenue from decreased electricity use from its accounting of pandemic costs.
Roger Colton, a utility expert who testified on behalf of the National Housing Trust, pointed out that low-income workers are the group most likely to have their jobs disrupted in the pandemic, and the least likely to be able to work from home or receive paid personal leave or sick leave.
Colton cited data from the Urban Institute showing that, in March and April of this year, 28% of families with incomes below the Federal Poverty Level could not pay the full amounts of their gas, oil or electric bills. More current information, from the U.S. Census Bureau, shows that one-third of households overall were having trouble meeting basic household expenses.
Threats of shutoffs force low-income consumers into untenable situations, including taking out high-interest loans and falling behind on obligations like rent, Colton said.
“Rather than helping to resolve the root of the nonpayment problem, the service disconnections place customers in the position where they will time-and-again be faced with similar future problems,” he testified.
As consumers dig into deeper debt traps, their chances of ever catching up on utility bills become slimmer, Colton noted. “The easiest and most effective way for Evergy to generate revenue is to retain customers on the system,” he said.
Colton recommended a moratorium on service disconnections due to overdue bills until six months after a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available. He also called on Evergy to suspend late fees during that period.
Gina Penzig, a spokeswoman for Evergy, said the utility was being as flexible as possible with extended payment plans for low-income customers. Long-term moratoriums carry their own costs, in the form of possibly insurmountable balances down the road, she noted.
“It’s important when you start having these discussions about a moratorium on disconnects that you also have a discussion about the balances that are accruing from that energy use,” Penzig said.
Rich, at the Mid America Assistance Coalition, said he sees the effects of the pandemic straining families, but also utilities, especially the smaller, municipally owned utilities around the area.
“Big utilities can weather it better than the smaller utilities,” he said. “If they’re not getting cash in it’s all cash out. While I’m an advocate for families in Missouri, I do understand what the utilities have to deal with.”
At the Community Assistance Council, Casey and her staff are dealing with a phone that never stops ringing.
“Some days we’re getting up to 80 phone calls,” Casey said.
Most calls are from families desperate to stay in their homes and keep the lights and water on. Contributors have been generous, but it’s never enough, Casey said.
“We need funds to help people get out of the hole,” she said.
Eboney Allmon, meanwhile, says she is still shaken by the realization of how quickly one can fall into that hole.
“I work every day,” she said. “I had a decent life before COVID hit.”
In good news, around the time she got help bringing her overdue Evergy account up to date, Allmon landed another preschool teaching job. She said she was thrilled about the chance to get back to work.
“I try to stay positive,” Allmon said. “By the grace of God, I’m getting through this.”
Flatland contributor Barbara Shelly is a freelance writer based in Kansas City.