In a little white bungalow in El Portal, a 60-year-old woman sweats.
She lost her child-care job at the start of the pandemic, and with it, the paycheck that helped cover her skyrocketing electric bill as Miami broke heat record after heat record this summer. She can only afford to turn on her air conditioner on the weekends.
“If I run it the whole month, it’s going to be outrageous, like three- or $400. I can’t afford it,” said Lynn. She asked that her last name not be used; her neighbors don’t know her plight. She survives off her Social Security check and weekdays spent in recently reopened public places, like libraries and Miami Dade College.
Lynn is one of more than 30,000 Florida Power and Light customers who are three months (or more) behind on their power bills, according to October numbers provided by FPL. At this time last year, only about 6,000 people were that far behind. Another 40,000 people are two to three months behind.
And on Oct. 1, FPL resumed disconnections after pausing them in March.
Miami-Dade’s program to help financially stressed customers has doubled its budget to nearly $20 million, thanks to federal funding. But requests from residents in need are still pouring in.
“We’re tapping into individuals who five, six months ago wouldn’t think they’d need to apply for public assistance,” said Annika Holder, interim director of the county’s Community Action and Human Services Department. “People are making choices between Pampers and having to pay the light bill.”
Struggling to pay the bills
With disconnections back on the table and an end to the moratorium on evictions, social justice organizations like Catalyst Miami are hearing from more and more distraught residents struggling with their bills after eight months of pandemic shutdowns.
“For people right now, the big bills are your mortgage or your rent. You might not be paying attention to your power bill,” said Mayra Cruz, climate resilience coordinator at Catalyst Miami. “If anyone has been furloughed or unemployed, they’re going to struggle to pay their electric bills, especially when we’re expected to stay inside and quarantine.”
That’s the case for Wade, an Overtown resident who saw his energy bill nearly double since January.
With a medical condition limiting his ability to work, the 60-year-old receives a monthly disability check. The electricity charges are automatically subtracted; the remaining amount barely covers his essentials.
“Sometimes I can go without washing clothes or stretch this or that meal to another day,” said Wade, who asked that only his first name be used due to not wanting to be seen as a charity case.
Wade was baffled by the jump in his bill considering that he lives alone. Between January and August, it rose from $30 to $57 per month.
Wade’s situation is nothing new. A 2015 study found that roughly one-third (31 percent) of American households — most of whom are minorities and classified as low-income — have difficulty paying their utilities, according to the U.S. Energy Information Association. Financial problems related to energy costs also could trigger anxiety and depression, a Columbia University research study showed.
For his part, Wade says he’s already learned not to expect much from this country.
”That’s just the Black experience,” he said. His Christian faith and work help him keep his spirits up, he added.
Help is available
Despite a legal challenge from environmental activist group Earthjustice, Florida’s Public Service Commission allowed utilities to resume shutoffs this fall. Florida Power & Light, South Florida’s primary utility, was one of the last companies to begin issuing final notices and disconnecting customers.
“FPL will continue working closely with customers to do everything we can to avoid turning the lights off for nonpayment, which is and has always been a last resort,” spokesperson Christopher McGrath wrote in an email.
The company started sending out final notices again in mid-September to customers with the most overdue accounts, he said. In late October, McGrath said FPL hasn’t issued final notices to everyone eligible for them.
He also said that most customers who’d been disconnected in October were reconnected within a day, although he declined to give specifics on the number of disconnections.
“The vast majority of customers who have received a final notice and have passed their due date still remain in service,” McGrath said.
In November, FPL announced a new $20 monthly credit to any customers who get federal help with their power bills through a program like LIHEAP. It takes effect in December and will continue through December 2021.
FPL also started offering a $200 credit to customers who agree to pay off the rest of their outstanding balance with cash, along with their longstanding repayment program that pushes some of the cost of summer bills onto traditionally lower winter bills.
Wade was one of the beneficiaries of the program. After applying in August, he was approved a month later and has been spreading the word ever since.
“The economy is bad and you got a lot of people who’re losing their job,” Wade explained. People need help, he added, and to keep this opportunity all to himself would be wrong. “You’re supposed to share knowledge because knowledge is power.”
The utility also suggests that customers in need reach out to their county’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which has been federally funded for 30 years. Miami-Dade’s LIHEAP program got an additional $8.1 million in CARES Act funding this year, which Miami-Dade County’s Holder called “wonderful.”
Since July, she said, more than 14,000 people have asked for help. So far, the program has helped more than 5,000 households with more than $3.2 million in assistance.
Typically, a household can get $1,200 in assistance in a year, but Holder said COVID prompted the program to bump that maximum assistance to $2,000 a year.
“At the end of the day, people are making really tough choices, so I think it’s wonderful that we can help,” she said. “This is a needed service in this time.”
HOW TO GET HELP
Florida Power and Light customers can visit FPL.com/Help or call 800-226-3545.
Miami-Dade County residents can apply for assistance by calling 786-469-4640 or visiting the county’s website at www.miamidade.gov/socialservices to complete the application online or download the application and either mail it to one of the 12 CAHSD Community Resource Centers or place it in the secured drop box located in front of the Community Resource Centers.