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A Tenant's Guide to Getting and Keeping Gas and Electricity Service

TenantNet note: This booklet was published by Brooklyn Legal Services in 1995. Some information contained may be out-of-date, particularly listed telephone numbers. As far as we know, there have been no updates to this publication. While much of the information may still be valid, the reader should exercise caution.

IV. When A Utility Company Can Terminate Service To Individual Households

A utility company can shut off the gas or electrical service in your apartment for two reasons:

  1. An emergency that may threaten health or the safety of the utility's distribution system (such as a gas leak);
  2. Failure to pay for utility service you received.

Unless there is an emergency, the utility company must give you timely written notice before cutting off your service. Some residents may be able to delay termination because of medical condition, age or disability. The details regarding the notices you will receive and the special protections that are available are discussed below.

The best advice for anyone who faces a possible termination of utility service is: Don't wait. Call the utility company immediately for an explanation and for suggestions about what you might do to prevent the shut-off. The telephone numbers may be found on all utility bills and the notice of termination. Additional phone numbers for Brooklyn Union and Con Edison may be found later in this booklet.

The utility companies say that they will grant reasonable requests for more time to pay a bill. If you need a little more time to collect the money to pay your bill, call and ask for it. Be certain you have the extra time you need, rather than wait and hope the shut-off doesn't occur.

Too often, tenants wait until the gas or electricity is turned off to try to fix the problem. It is usually much more difficult to get utility service turned back on than it is to keep it from being shut off in the first place.

A. Termination due to an emergency

A utility company may disconnect service to your apartment without notice when an emergency threatens health or safety or the utility's distribution system. If your service is terminated due to an emergency, like a gas leak, none of the notice requirements or other safeguards discussed below apply.

If your service is shut off without notice, call the utility company and ask why your service was shut off and when it will be restored. The law requires the utility company to restore your service as soon as possible.

B. Termination for nonpayment

The utility company may shut off your service if you failed (1) to pay your gas or electric bills for some period during the past 12 months; (2) to make a payment under a deferred payment agreement; (3) to pay equipment and installation charges relating to initiation of your utility service; or (4) to pay a required deposit.

1. Notice you should receive prior to termination

Before the utility company can shut off your service for nonpayment, or for any other reason other than an emergency, they must provide you with written notice of their intention to terminate.

The utility company has to wait at least 20 days from the date your payment was due before they can send you a termination notice. The notice must be personally served or mailed at least 15 days before the proposed termination date. If the notice was not properly served, the utility should agree to delay termination or restore service while a new notice is served properly.

The termination notice must state the following information: the earliest date on which the termination may occur; the reasons for the termination including the amount of money required to be paid; the address and telephone number of the utility company office; the availability of procedures for handling complaints; and a summary of the legal protections available.

The termination notice must include the following message in large type near the top of the paper: "THIS IS A FINAL TERMINATION NOTICE. PLEASE BRING THIS NOTICE TO THE ATTENTION OF THE UTILITY WHEN PAYING THIS BILL. " See Sample Termination Notice, at page 46-D-F.

Termination for nonpayment is allowed only between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday through Thursday. Service should not be terminated if the day of termination or the following day is a public holiday or a day on which the utility's main business office is closed. Service cannot be shut off during a two week period around Christmas and New Years Day.

2. Notice to the Human Resources Administration

If the utility company knows that you receive some form of public assistance (including SSI), it must also notify the Human Resources Administration ("HRA") of the proposed termination, the amount of arrears and that payment has not been made. Notice to HRA must be sent three to five days before the proposed termination.

3. Notice to third parties

If it is hard for you to keep track of your utility bills, you may give the utility company the name and address of someone else (such as a relative or friend) who will then receive copies of all notices relating to overdue bills or termination of service. You will still receive your own copy of any termination notice sent. This arrangement may be helpful if you do not read well or if do not get your mail regularly. The person you designate must agree in writing to receive these notices. By agreeing to accept notices, the person you designate will not be responsible for paying your utility bills.

C. What you can do to prevent or delay termination

Payment of all outstanding bills is the only permanent solution to a threat to terminate your utility service. You may be able to delay a shut-off and get additional time to seek money to pay your bill.

Special protections are available for customers who have medical emergencies, who are elderly, blind or disabled.

1. Payment

You can always prevent the termination of service by paying the full amount of the bill The utility company is required to verify that payment has not been received before shutting off your service. If a utility company employee is sent to terminate your service, you may stop the shut-off by making payment in full to that person. If he or she refuses to accept payment, ask to speak with a supervisor at the utility company before service is shut off If that is unsuccessful, call the Public Service Commission ("PSC") immediately and ask them to halt the termination. See pages 29-31 of this booklet, which describe Complaints to the PSC.

2. Deferred payment agreements

If your service has been or is about to be shut off for nonpayment and you cannot pay the full amount owed, you may negotiate an agreement, called a "deferred payment agreement," with the utility company to pay what you owe over a period of time.

The utility company is required to attempt to make a deferred payment agreement to fit your financial circumstances. At a minimum, the company must explain to you why a plan that fits your budget is not acceptable to them.

The utility company may postpone termination for up to ten days to negotiate a deferred payment agreement.

The standard deferred payment agreement requires that you make a lump-sum downpayment and monthly payments. The down payment must be equal to 15% of the arrears or one half of one month's average bill, whichever is greater. The monthly payments must be an amount equal to 1/10th of the arrears or one half of one month's average bill, whichever is greater. See sample Deferred Payment Agreement Form, at page 46-G.

If you cannot afford the standard agreement. you may request a more lenient plan. You will have to give information about your family's income, rent or mortgage costs, and other living expenses. Based on your financial circumstances, the utility company may approve a payment agreement with no downpayment and installments as low as $10 per month.

If you agree to a deferred payment plan, you must make all the payments required by the plan. In addition, you must continue to pay your current utility bills. If you fail to make a payment required by the plan, the utility company can terminate your service.

If you are more than 20 days late with an installment payment, the utility may send you a termination notice. The utility company must send you a reminder notice at least eight days before issuing a termination notice.

If you are not able to make a payment, you should call the utility company before the pay date to let them know. The utility is more likely to excuse a late payment if they hear from you beforehand.

If your financial circumstances change, you may be able to negotiate a new deferred payment agreement. You will have to tell the utility company about the changes in your income or expenses. You may also need to complete a new financial status form.

For example: Mr. and Mrs. Yellow have been facing severe financial difficulties for the past 8 months. As a result, they were unable to pay their Brooklyn Union bill. They received a termination notice from Brooklyn Union in March, 1994. In early April, Mr. and Mrs. Yellow explained their financial situation to a Brooklyn Union representative and entered into a deferred payment agreement in which the Yellows agreed to pay $25.00 per month towards the arrears ~ all current bills. Two months later Mrs. Yellow lost her job. The Yellows spoke to Brooklyn Union about the change in their financial circumstances and entered into a new deferred payment agreement that reduced their arrears payments from $25.00 to $10.00 per month. They were still required to pay current bills.

3. Special protections

a. Medical emergency

If you are facing a shut-off and you or someone in your household is seriously ill or has a chronic medical condition, you may be able to get a 30-day extension of your utility service with the help of a doctor or the Board of Health. You can inform the utility company of the medical emergency and then have a doctor or the Board of Health certify the information in writing within five days. See sample Temporary Medical Emergency Form, at page 46-H.

The certification must be on a doctor's or Board of Health stationery and must contain the following information:

  1. name and address of the seriously-ill person;
  2. type of illness;
  3. doctor's New York State registration number;
  4. signature of doctor or Board of Health official;
  5. an affirmation that the illness will be aggravated by the loss of utility service.

The certification qualifies you for a 30-day extension of service. After 30 days, you must renew the certification or the utility company may start the process of termination again. After receiving your initial certificate, the utility company should send you a form for requesting a renewal.

To renew a certificate of medical emergency you must show that the emergency is likely to continue and that you are financially unable to pay your utility bills. The renewed certificate must be in writing. Renewed certificates are usually effective for 30 days. People suffering from conditions certified as chronic may stop terminations for 60 days or longer if the PSC approves.

The utility company may deny the renewal if you have not demonstrated your financial inability to pay your utility bills. You may challenge a company's refusal to renew by complaining to the PSC as explained below. See pages 29-31 of this booklet, which describe Complaints to the PSC.

At the expiration of a certificate of medical emergency the utility company must serve a new 15-day notice of termination before shutting off your service.

(i) Life support systems

If you or someone in your household needs electricity to operate life-sustaining medical equipment, such as an iron lung or a dialysis machine, you should inform the utility company. The company should make a note in its records on your account, so that they will exercise caution before terminating your service.

Continuation of service due to a medical emergency or reliance on life support equipment does not relieve you from responsibility for payment of your utility bills. You must pay your bills as soon as you are able to do so.

b. Elderly, blind or disabled

If everyone in your household is 62 or older, 18 or younger, blind, or disabled (if you are a senior citizen living alone or with other seniors, or if you are a senior raising minor children) the utility company may not shut off or refuse to restore your service without following special procedures. Your service should not be terminated unless the utility tries to contact an adult member of the household at least 72 hours before the scheduled shut-off.

If the utility is told that your household qualifies for special protection, they should attempt to contact you to arrange a payment plan. If no payment plan is agreed upon, the utility company must refer the case to HRA so that they can negotiate a payment plan or guarantee payment of the account. The utility company may not terminate service for 15 business days following the referral to HRA. If HRA fails to negotiate an agreement with the utility company, call and complain to the PSC to try to stop the termination. See pages 29-31 of this booklet, which describe Complaints to the PSC.

If you believe that your household may qualify for protection from termination because of the age or disability of its members, call the utility company to tell them. Telephone Brooklyn Union at (718) 403-2171, (718) 403-2174 or (718) 403-2176, and Con Edison at 1-800-872-8846. If you are not sure whether you or another member of your household qualifies as disabled, explain the disability to the utility company. If you receive SSI you are likely to be considered disabled.

c. Heat-related service in winter

Between November 1 and April 15, the utility company must follow special rules before terminating heat-related service. Heat-related service includes gas or electricity if either powers your heating system. Electricity used to start a gas or oil burner is heat-related, even if it is not the primary heating fuel.

These provisions do not apply to tenants whose heat is provided by their landlords. Most New York City tenants fall into this group. However, if the heat your landlord provides is not adequate, electrical service used to power an individual heating unit qualifies as heat-related. To get special protections to avoid heat-related termination, you must have informed Con Edison during the previous 12 months, in writing, that you rely on your own electrical heater for heat in the wintertime.

During winter, heat-related service cannot be shut off unless the utility tries to contact an adult resident at least 72 hours prior to termination. The utility company must call once during business hours and once after business hours. If neither call reaches an adult resident, or if there is no phone, a utility company representative must visit the apartment. At the time of termination, the utility company must again try to contact an adult resident.

The purpose of these contacts is to determine whether the termination poses a serious threat to the health or safety of any resident. A serious threat is likely if a resident is ill, elderly, mentally incapacitated, disabled or blind and may be unable to manage his or her resources, carry out daily activities, or protect himself or herself from hazardous situations.

If termination poses a threat to health or safety, the utility may not shut off service until it notifies HRA of the proposed termination and HRA notifies the utility company that no danger exists or alternative protection is available. If HRA fails to respond within 15 days of the utility company's referral, the utility may terminate service.

If no pre-termination contact was made and the customer has not contacted the utility company by noon on the day following termination, a utility company representative must visit the premises to determine whether they are occupied and whether an impairment to health or safety is likely to occur. If the utility representative believes a serious threat is likely, the utility must restore service and refer the matter to HRA. If the utility representative is unable to make contact with an adult resident and it appears that the premises are occupied, the utility must also refer the matter to HRA.

If HRA fails to respond to any of the utility company's referrals, or if you disagree with a decision to terminate your services, complain to the PSC to try to stop the termination. See pages 29-31 of this booklet, which describe Complaints to the PSC.

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