Expanding on a prior proclamation, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has banned utility companies until May 4 from disconnecting water, energy and phone service to homes due to nonpayment, citing the coronavirus public health emergency and the resulting unemployment crisis.

In his prior order, issued March 18, Inslee “strongly encouraged” public and private utilities to “take reasonable actions to mitigate the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” urging but not requiring the utilities to halt disconnections for nonpayment during the emergency period.

Many utility companies did announce they wouldn’t disconnect customers for nonpayment. For example, most of the state’s largest water providers, such as the public utilities that serve Seattle, Bellevue, Spokane, Tacoma, Vancouver, Everett, Renton and Redmond, suspended such disconnections.

But some public utilities, serving hundreds of thousands of people, didn’t immediately make clear commitments to halt disconnections, and only two promised reconnections, according to research by Food & Water Action. Most of the state’s 52 smaller, private water providers didn’t make commitments to halt disconnections, according to the Food & Water Action research.

More than 20 organizations sent a letter to Inslee on April 9 asking him to suspend all water service disconnections across Washington and to require water service be restored to homes previously disconnected. The organizations included Food & Water Action, 350 Seattle, the Sierra Club’s state chapter, Washington Community Action Network, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness and the Washington State Labor Council.

“Public health depends on universal water access,” the organizations wrote in its letter, arguing that the voluntary approach had allowed utilities to adopt disparate policies. “We need running water at home to keep ourselves and our communities safe. Water must be turned on for everyone, right now, for the safety of all Washington residents, and the entire country.”

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At the time, an Inslee spokesman said the governor wanted to protect water access but also was concerned about revenue for smaller utility companies.

The governor’s new proclamation, signed Friday, extends his prior order from April 17 to May 4 and prohibits utilities from disconnecting any residential water, energy and landline phone customers due to nonpayment (except at the request of the customer).  The new order also prohibits utilities from refusing to reconnect residential customers previously disconnected due to nonpayment. Lastly, it prohibits utilities from charging late fees. The prior order had encouraged that.

The new proclamation does not relieve utility customers from their obligations to pay their bills, Inslee’s office noted.

Thomas Meyer, a Food & Water Action spokesman, hailed the moves in a statement, describing the governor’s new order as “the direct result of grassroots organizing.” The new proclamation “will protect families across the state and will ensure that everyone has access to the resources they need,” Meyer said.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, is a co-sponsor of a U.S. House bill that would prohibit water disconnections nationwide during the emergency.

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