Photo by Erica Peterson

Lauren can’t remember the last time she laughed. 

“I live in tremendous fear and distress,” said Lauren, who has asthma and other preexisting conditions that would make her more prone to serious illness if she contracted COVID-19. “Between the economics and the COVID, it’s just overwhelming. Really overwhelming.” 

Lauren, who lives in the northern part of West Virginia, lived paycheck to paycheck before the pandemic hit. Making ends meet has only gotten more difficult since then. 

Eight months after West Virginia’s first confirmed COVID-19 case, Lauren, who asked to not be further identified for fear of losing her job, struggles to pay her bills, including the money she already owes for utilities. While the CARES Act funds Gov. Jim Justice recently allocated to help cover delinquent utility bills will help, she said, it’s not nearly enough. The funds are only good for bills from March through July.

One of Lauren’s past due utility bills. Photo courtesy Lauren.

And Lauren’s not alone in needing more help.

Charleston’s Covenant House Executive Director Ellen Allen said that from January through October, Covenant House helped people with housing and utility bills 1,873 times. That’s a 20% increase from the same period last year. The Covenant House in Charleston helps those in need with food, clothing and shelter.

There was no official moratorium on utility shutoffs in West Virginia during the early months of the pandemic. West Virginia was one of only 15 states not to have a mandatory shut-off suspension, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association.

Instead, from spring to early summer, the state Public Service Commission urged utility companies not to shut off service to those who missed payments. But West Virginians who weren’t able to pay then are still expected to pay what’s past due — and risk getting their utility services cut off if they do not, even as economic issues from the pandemic continue, the spread of COVID-19 intensifies and the coming winter increases utility costs.

“We’re seeing people for the first time that we’ve never seen before,” Allen said. “The big thing that is new for us is we have utilities — the amount of them — some of these are $1,000, $2,000, where they’ve accumulated over the months.

“People are on the precipice right now,” she said.

On Oct. 21, two weeks before the general election, Justice announced he was allocating $25 million in CARES Act money to resolve unpaid bills. 

“I truly hope and believe that this money will assist West Virginians that are still struggling with this pandemic,” Justice said. 

The announcement came more than six months after the state received $1.25 billion in CARES Act funding, and nearly four months after Justice first said the funds would be partially allocated to public utilities.

This timing is confusing to Allen.

“Why make people wait and struggle to figure out how they’re going to pay their rent and utilities?” she said.

The governor’s office did not respond to a media request by publication.

Public Service Commission Chairman Charlotte Lane said during the October press briefing that more than 133,000 residential utility customers qualified for the financial assistance. While there’s no cap on the amount eligible West Virginians could request, if all 133,000 apply for the program and the money is evenly divided, each would get $188.

The deadline to apply was Nov. 12, though Lane said on Tuesday applications would be processed until the end of the week. 

“Whatever their delinquency was, the customer will get that amount of money credited to their account,” Lane said. “If it started exceeding $25 million, then we were going to have to look at prorating the amount of each grant.”

Lane said the program would benefit people who were unable to pay their utility bills as well as utility companies that “need to have cash flow to keep up providing good service to everybody.”

Lane said the five-month time frame covered by the utility relief program was determined by the amount of money designated for it. She said around 40,000 applications had been received so far from the state’s 26 largest utility companies, and estimates it to add up to around $14 million in claims. Lane said she expected to receive a report of the state’s 600 smaller providers on Monday, and her best guess was that it would total another $3 million or less.

“I know that the delinquencies that the utilities have attributed to the COVID issue are much more than $25 million, but so far, it looks as if we are not going to reach the $25 million in requests for relief. But we might,” she said. 

More assistance needed

Advocates say more assistance for people struggling through the pandemic is needed — both in paying utilities and in accessing other necessities.

Karan Ireland, Central Appalachia Sierra Club senior campaign representative, said “the way to go” would be a national moratorium on utility shut-offs. 

 “It’s unthinkable to me that during a public health crisis, people would have to think about their water being shut off, or their electricity and heat being shut off,” she said.

The Sierra Club joined other nonprofits in signing onto a Oct. 16 letter to the governor advocating for utility assistance. In the letter, the organizations estimated $50 million would be needed. Though the Sierra Club is known to focus on environmental issues, Ireland said, “Central to the Sierra Club’s mission and work is the belief that equity, inclusion and justice are part and parcel of everything we do. So that utility work is driven by that.”

Allen said another stimulus package from the U.S. Congress would help those currently struggling. 

“There’s going to need to be another infusion of significant money to help people that are underemployed pay rent, utilities [and] food,” she said.

As it is every year, financial aid for winter heating bills is also available through the Department of Health and Human Resources’ Low Income Energy Assistance Program. Depending on their utility provider, people can also get help through the Dollar Energy Fund.

But when it comes to digging out of the pandemic’s financial holes, advocates agree: more needs to be done to help struggling West Virginians. 

On Lauren’s end, the bills keep adding up. To make up for lost revenue, her employer got rid of her afternoon shift and switched her to nights. Lauren doesn’t have a car and the bus doesn’t run that late, so she has to take a taxi home.

At first, she tried to stave off expenses by walking the five miles home. She did it for three weeks. “I had to put duct tape on my feet to keep the skin from falling off,” she said. 

Then, an unrelated injury affected her ability to make the walk. She started taking a cab home, costing her around $250 a month. 

“The other day I rushed home and I was like, ‘Oh, thank God, my electric’s still on,’” she said.

She sent an application for the CARES Act utility aid, but she’s eligible for just $139 through the program. And since July 31, her unpaid utility bills continue to pile up.

Douglas Soule is a Report for America corps member who covers business and economic development. A Bridgeport native, he worked as an intern at the Charleston Gazette-Mail. He has served as editor-in-chief...