March 29, 2021

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Brianna Beaudoin to stop working as a hairdresser. After a divorce, she is now a single mother of three, confronting a cascade of challenges exacerbated by the pandemic.

“So I’m looking for a place to live with no job and very little money,” she says. “Every month I have to try to figure out how to pay all of my bills, my phone, my car, my insurance, and my credit card debt.”

Though she’s received some assistance from both Native American Youth and Family Center and the Jewish Community Center, it’s been difficult for her family to stay afloat during the pandemic.

“It’s like swimming upstream against a very hard current. I don’t know how we’re going to catch up or move forward,” Beaudoin says.

And if it weren’t for the Oregon Public Utility Commission’s (PUC) moratorium on disconnections, which limits utilities shutoffs for Oregonians in arrears, Beaudoin would be without power, too. She says the moratorium is the only thing giving her five-year-old daughter the ability to attend online school.

Without it, “we’d have to steal the internet and stuff from other people,” Beaudoin says. “[Our lives] have changed dramatically — my kids aren’t going to recreational things, they aren’t learning to swim, they’re not doing soccer or ballet or taekwondo.”

After concerns of growing customer arrears and lower response rates to arrear notices, the moratorium is set to expire June 15, 2021.

But many, including Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, are pushing for a continuation of the moratorium, as well as equitable energy access for those who have been most impacted by the pandemic. On Feb. 19, Chair Kafoury sent a request to the Oregon PUC to extend the moratorium to April 1, 2022, and to periodically evaluate utility programs to manage customers' debt.

“Access to energy remains as essential to health and well-being today as it was in October 2020, particularly for the many community members who face existing health or social vulnerabilities that make them more susceptible to the impacts of COVID-19. The crisis is not over and its end remains uncertain,” she wrote in the letter.

“The humanitarian and public health concerns that motivated the moratorium on disconnections remain…  Black, Indigenous and other People of Color (BIPOC) remain more likely to contract the virus and die from COVID-19, just like when you adopted the moratorium. For example, 26.5% of reported COVID-19 cases in Oregon are from our Latinx community, although that community is just above 13% of our population. ”

Silvia Tanner, a senior policy analyst in the County’s Office of Sustainability agrees. Ending the moratorium could pose a significant threat to Multnomah County residents, where 24% of households in Multnomah County are considered “energy burdened” — spending more than 6% of their annual income on electricity.

“We don’t need to be hitting people with a stick when they’re down,” Tanner says. 

Courtney Keating, a program specialist in the Multnomah County Energy Assistance Program, says that since the pandemic many energy assistance programs and nonprofits have shifted to serving clients virtually. Given this change, ending the moratorium doesn’t make much sense.

“If they don’t have electricity, how are we supposed to serve them virtually?” she asks.

“We don’t know when we are going to be able to see clients in person, but it’s not going to be anytime soon. So if they start shutting clients off, we can’t help them.”

However, Keating recognizes the potential drawbacks of continuing to extend the moratorium.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” she says. “The longer we wait to shut people off, the higher their bills are. But it just doesn’t make sense in a pandemic.”

Working in partnership with other organizations, including community-based organizations like Verde and Community Energy Project (CEP), and the Citizens’ Utility Board, Tanner and Keating have been a part of early discussions about shifting away from that utility outreach that relies on the threat of disconnections.

“Utilities might not be getting responses [from customers in arrears] because they might not be the best messenger. If you don’t have the money to pay right now, how likely are you going to be to open the envelope? How likely are you going to be to answer a call?” Tanner says. 

“A bigger conversation needs to be had.”

Charity Fain is the executive director at CEP, which provides free home services focused on safety, health and energy efficiency. As climate justice advocates who serve low-income and BIPOC communities, CEP has pushed the Oregon PUC to transition to working with community-based organizations when assisting community members in arrears, instead of relying on shutoffs.

Fain says the pandemic, which has exacerbated existing inequities, makes the case for alternative utility outreach clear.

“We have to take this opportunity to build a better future,” she says.

One of the ways County officials are trying to create a more equitable community after the pandemic is by supporting House Bill 2475, designed to reduce energy disparities by allowing the Oregon PUC to differentiate utility rates for energy-burdened households. It will also open a stream of funding to support community-based organizations that work to achieve environmental justice for low-income communities. The bill is also expected to reduce energy burden and the risk of disconnection for low-income community members.

“This is a reform that everyone — the utility companies , rate payers, and the people who struggle to pay their bills every month — acknowledges we need,” Chair Kafoury says. “I hope the legislature is able to finally get it done.”

“I, someone in our community who is very vulnerable, and [Nike co-founder] Phil Knight all pay the same utility rate, and that makes little sense,” Tanner says. 

The bill would also make it possible for groups that represent low-income ratepayers and people of color to participate in Oregon PUC rulemaking processes by providing those groups funding to participate. Other rate-payer advocacy groups have had access to this funding, also known as intervenor funding, but HB 2475 would allow organizations advocating for environmental justice in low-income communities to use their voices at these proceedings for the first time.

“We want to open those funding streams for other organizations so we can have their expertise at the table and inform the commission about the benefits or burdens that their decision-making places on their communities,” says Tanner.