It’s uncertain times. If you find yourself or someone you know, worrying about being able to pay an electricity bill, we’ll break down what you can do. There is some good news. Because electricity is an essential service, there are protections in place so customers get a fair go and can keep the power on.
In fact earlier this week, AGL’s CEO wrote to two million customers to say that the big retailer will be there to help those in need as Australians face difficult financial times due to the coronavirus outbreak. The retailer urged any customers experiencing difficulties paying their bill to get in contact. Mr Redman said, “We acknowledge that many of our customers will be concerned about what’s ahead and, for some, these concerns will be about how they’re going to pay their bills. This is exactly what our hardship programs are there for.” We expect many retailers will reassure customers at this challenging time and offer additional support.
Notwithstanding this, the National Energy Retail Law also recognises that households can experience financial hardships that limit their ability to pay energy bills. Changes to household circumstances like illness, unemployment and reduced income are part of life. Regulations demand that every retailer must have approved policies in place to assist their residential customers in times of need. These financial hardship programs offer customers assistance in scheduling payments to avoid disconnection.
Getting help from a retailer starts when a customer lets them know they are facing a challenge.
It’s good to talk
The best course of action is to speak to the retailer if your household has a problem paying the energy bill. That’s because when the retailer knows about a problem, they are required by law to advise the customer about;
- what they will do to help you manage your energy bills;
- how they consider your circumstances and needs; and
- your rights as a customer in our hardship program.
Every retailer has staff that are trained to assist customers facing hardship. They will ask a few questions about circumstances and will work out if customers can join the hardship program.
Ignoring a bill and hoping it will go away will lead to escalating demands and may reduce your options – risking disconnection. Not to mention more expense and stress to get reconnected. Ultimately, the retailer must recommend that customers speak to a staff member about joining a hardship program in situations where there is;
- a history of late payments;
- broken payment plans;
- payment extensions requested;
- a disconnection warning notice received; or
- disconnection made for non-payment.
Here’s what retailers do to help
First up, retailers will often agree to a payment extension, giving you more time to pay your bill.
If you need more support, then retailers offer hardship programs where they provide more assistance, including:
- Letting you know if you are on the right energy plan or if there is a lower-cost energy plan for you.
- Advising you about government concessions, energy rebates and relief, or financial counselling services that you may be eligible for that would reduce the cost of your energy.
- Giving ideas about how to reduce your energy use.
- Offering you a payment plan that breaks down the outstanding bill into smaller amounts that better suit your circumstances.
- Excluding you from late payment fees or having to pay a security deposit. They also can’t change your plan (such as the payment frequency) without your agreement.
You can find details on hardship programs on energy retailers websites if you want the lowdown before contacting them directly.
Energy Retailer Payment Assistance & Hardship information
Amber Energy. The Energy Locals Hardship Policy applies to customers
Commander Power & Gas
DC Power Co. The Powershop Hardship Policy applies to customers.
Dodo Power & Gas
Future X Power
Kogan Energy. The Powershop Hardship Policy applies to customers.
Locality Planning Energy
Next Business Energy
You can phone a friend
The law allows for a family member, friend or advocate to help an elderly or vulnerable household talk to the retailer. The retailer will need the customer’s permission for a support person to assist in the conversation.
Who is eligible?
The law says that there can’t be unreasonable conditions that exclude a customer experiencing payment difficulties due to hardship from joining or re-joining a retailer’s hardship program. In addition;
- Retailers can’t ask for a one-off payment or that customers make a certain number of instalments towards their debt to join the program.
- They can’t force customers to attend financial counselling or to be represented by a third party such as a financial counsellor.
- Your retailer can’t require customers to have an energy audit.
- A retailer can’t exclude customers that have already accepted a payment extension or extensions before being placed on a hardship program.
- Retailers can’t insist that customers can only join if they pay their bills on time.
The retailer must explain the reason why they have refused any customer access to a support program. If there’s an issue, you can take this up with the energy ombudsmen.
What happens with a payment plan
A payment plan will consider how much you can pay, how much you owe, and how much energy you’re expected to use over the next 12 months.
Based on the customer’s circumstance, the payment plan will cover what you owe along with an amount to cover your ongoing energy use.
Once the retailer and customers agree to a payment plan, the retailer will send information, including contact details for more help.
Not happy with what’s on offer?
You don’t have to agree to the assistance package if it’s not going to work. You can request other options because retailers hardship program are required to offer “flexible payment options to suit your individual situation.” Ultimately, customers have the right to contact the energy ombudsman about their treatment by a retailer if they believe it is not reasonable. And retailers need to tell customers that they can do this.
You will need to tell the retailer if your situation changes, and you can no longer meet the payments in your plan. That way, they can then review payment arrangements and potentially make adjustments. You also need to let the retailer know if your contact details change. Under the guidelines, retailers may stop assistance if customers stop making payments or don’t advise contact detail changes.
Be aware that if customers have had two payment plans cancelled over a 12 months period because they did not follow their plan, then the retailer does not have to offer them another plan. And they might disconnect their energy. This is the last resort. We’re already seeing additional leniency being offered to affected customers of the economic shutdown. In late March 2020, Queensland networks Ergon Energy and Energex that cover the whole state between them, had already put a stop to disconnecting households facing hardship – and I’m certain this approach is likely to expand to networks across the country.
Extra relief programs
In additional, your retailer will explain various local schemes which you may be eligible for.
For example, Victoria’s Utility Grant Scheme offers relief grants for paying overdue energy or water bills – up to the value of $1,300 over 2 years. Available to low-income Victorians experiencing unexpected hardship it’s designed to assists payment of electricity, gas or water bill that are overdue due to a temporary financial crisis.
in NSW, check out the Energy Accounts Payment Assistance (EAPA) Scheme. The EAPA assessment threshold has been temporarily increased from 27 April 2020, so people can receive up to $400 per assessment twice per year, compared to the normal amount of $300. This means households struggling with both electricity and gas bills could be eligible for up to $1600 in annual support. Residential energy customers can now apply directly through Service NSW and will be called for an assessment without having to leave their house.
It’s worth the ask
The operating rules for energy retailers make it clear that they have responsibilities to provide an essential service to the community. Literally anybody could find themselves in changed circumstances – and this might mean they can’t pay an energy bill on the due date. So it’s only fair that the energy sector offers customers a fair go and a range of assistance options. Don’t be afraid to ask for help because energy retailers are obliged by law to assist household customers. And right now, retailers are expecting to hear from their customers.