- Connecticut regulators have fined Avangrid’s gas and electric utilities nearly $4.5 million for failing to contact consumers directly before applying for wage garnishments despite COVID-19 rules.
- The Public Utilities Regulatory Authority also said the utilities violated state law by referring inactive accounts to third-party collection agencies without notice to residential customers.
- During the pandemic and spike in joblessness that followed, PURA required utilities to establish payment programs and communicate with delinquent customers about billing options.
PURA established a moratorium in March 2020 prohibiting utility shut-offs as joblessness and business closings soared at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Electric distribution, gas and water companies were prohibited from submitting information about a residential customer’s nonpayment to a credit rating agency unless the customer’s balance was outstanding for more than 120 days, PURA said.
Companies that submit information to a credit rating agency about a customer’s nonpayment were required to provide the customer with at least 30 days’ notice that payment information is being submitted to credit rating agencies, according to the decision.
Utilities were required to continue enrolling residential and business customers in COVID-19 payment programs through June 30, 2022.
PURA said United Illuminating, Connecticut Natural Gas and Southern Connecticut Gas did not suspend all collection activities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic or regulators’ decisions. Avangrid’s legal collections firm filed at least 204 applications for wage garnishments, regulators said.
The companies suspended the filing of new lawsuits in March 2020, but continued pursuing collection activities for the lawsuits pending before the pandemic, including applying for wage garnishments if a customer failed to comply with a judgment, PURA said.
Spokesman Gage Frank said United Illuminating, Connecticut Natural Gas and Southern Connecticut Gas “have respected and complied with the moratorium and that the collection activity involving the accounts that are the subject of the investigation predated the moratorium.”
Avangrid companies continue to offer energy assistance programs and payment plans for those facing difficulties paying their bills, he said.
Avangrid has 20 days to request a hearing before PURA.
PURA said a witness for Avangrid said during proceedings the electric and gas utilities do not have a procedure in place to proactively notify customers that third-party collection agencies could report their debt to credit bureaus.
Instead, Avangrid intends in the future to incorporate language into its final bill and reminder language, the agency said.
PURA said it “did not find credible” Avangrid’s rationale for failing to offer the COVID-19 payment program to customers. The company initially said court requirements prohibited offering the payment plan to customers after a judgment was entered, PURA said.
Avangrid also said its payment program was less favorable or less affordable than a court judgment, PURA said. It said the argument was “not substantiated by the record.”
Violations of its orders that may have resulted in unwarranted or avoidable wage garnishments are “particularly egregious and necessitate substantial sanctions,” PURA said.