Robin Brown’s utilities in Champaign were shut off by Ameren Illinois on September 18, 2020, in the midst of our historical COVID-19 pandemic. When asked about how utility shutoffs affected her, Brown said “I’ve had to give away and separate my children.” Brown had to find an in-person job to bring her family back together. Although she finally had her service restored on October 1 after paying her bill with her first paycheck, she is still struggling to reunite with her children, worried about the COVID risk factors.
In August, the Carbondale municipal government shut off water service for Georgia de la Garza, a board member of the progressive activist organization Our Illinois Revolution, while she was at the height of a COVID fever. Quarantined, de la Garza was also extremely weak, and could not use her shower to help bring her temperature down. After a couple of hours of trying to pay her water bill on Carbondale’s failed online website, and repeatedly calling the city, whose representative refused to take her credit card information over the phone, she reached out for help from a friend who works on the Jackson County Board. In thirty minutes she heard water running from her faucet. “I called my friend to thank her, crying, [and] told her how horrifying it must be for folks who couldn’t pay.” de la Garza said. “It really set me back.”
I could have easily had a similar experience. I was myself retaliated against, before my health insurance coverage started, for filing a workplace grievance, a protected union activity, by a politician in the Champaign County government. Although the county admitted fault in an unpaid settlement (payment would have required unacceptable limitations on my free speech rights), I then came home to a letter from Ameren Illinois announcing its intent to start the process of a utility shutoff. I was able to pay my utilities in time, but it got me thinking, like de la Garza, “What about the people who can’t pay?”
Being a data analyst and social justice activist, I began my homework and started what seems to be effective these days: a tweet storm to apply pressure on Governor Pritzker to call for a moratorium to halt utility shutoffs. I immediately reached out to fellow activists who also were concerned about people experiencing or facing economic collapse, utility shutoffs, and inevitably, eviction. In three days, the #NoAmerenShutoffs Campaign was created.
Since July 12, the campaign has grown to include 40 organizations as an all-volunteer, statewide, grassroots mobilization, with zero budget. Members have worked relentlessly to stop the state of Illinois from violating basic tenants’ rights for pandemic safety and the right for children of Illinois to have access to public education. From mass tweeting, to the social media engine, to waves of calls to the Governor’s Springfield and Chicago offices, to showing up at Pritzker’s press conferences, the ask is simple, “Governor Pritzker, sign an executive order for a mandatory moratorium without stipulations, for all Illinoisans, to halt utility shutoffs until March, 2021!”
The #NoAmerenShutoffs Campaign has succeeded in three statewide moratoria and one municipal moratorium throughout the (so far) 89-day campaign.
During several of the Illinois Commerce Commission public meetings, members and supporters of the campaign gave public comments advocating to stop utility shutoffs, especially during the pandemic and job losses. Earlier during the pandemic, utility shutoffs were not allowed for corporate, municipal or cooperative utilities. There was no valid reason to allow utility shutoffs to resume.
After the second time the #NoAmerenShutoffs Campaign presented comments, the commission submitted a letter on September 4 to Illinois’ corporate utilities, unanimously endorsed by all Republican and Democratic commissioners, requesting that corporate utilities cease disconnections through March of 2021 because “[t]he health emergency has not diminished as contemplated when the Commission adopted its Order on June 18, 2020,” referring to an order to allow disconnections for customer non-payment.
Governor Pritzker repeatedly signed executive orders mandating eviction moratoria. Even after the Centers for Disease Control enacted an eviction moratorium which required tenants to express financial hardship, the governor recognized that this stipulation put Illinoisans at risk, and continued to renew the Illinois’ more encompassing eviction moratorium by executive order.
This begs the question: by what expert advice and pandemic research does Governor Pritzker find that different standards apply to utility protections during the pandemic for Illinoisans?
Governor Pritzker repeatedly claimed to be following the advice of experts, yet the priorities of the 2007 analysis by the Congressional Research Service, entitled Pandemic Influenza: An Analysis of State Preparedness and Response Plans, which explicitly included utility service continuation as a priority, continue to be disregarded by the Governor.
Unlike in Indiana and Wisconsin, where repeated extensions of mandatory utility shutoff moratoria have occurred, and unlike Kentucky, where a mandatory moratorium on utility shutoffs has been secured through the end of the year, Illinois does not have a mandatory moratorium on utility shutoffs.
Within three days of the #NoAmerenShutoffs Campaign’s protest at Governor Pritzker’s Macomb press conference on September 18, a six-month voluntary moratorium on corporate utility shutoffs was enacted. Within seventy-two hours, Ameren Illinois defied the Governor and continued utility shutoffs for residents who were supposed to be protected.
In one case, a resident of Alton, Illinois called Ameren and, as instructed on the September 22nd Illinois Commerce Commission’s press release, “verbalized their difficulty” to “ensure a continuation of utility service.” Ameren disconnected the resident’s power anyway.
From Carbondale to Macomb, Ameren Illinois has begun utility shutoffs—even though their profits per share increased 36 percent from the second quarter of 2019 to the second quarter of this year. This quarter includes the months of April, May and June, when the unemployment rate in Illinois was at the zenith.
The unemployment rate in Illinois continues to be over 10 percent as of the latest publicly available data, over twice as high as last year, when utility subsidies from the state increased up to 49 percent. But since the need has at least doubled while there was no increase in subsidies, there is a minimum 75 percent shortfall in assistance available to struggling Illinoisans. Ameren Illinois’ utility assistance program is also woefully insufficient, covering up to approximately 16,000 households, when upwards of 80,000 are likely facing utility shutoffs. Nicor Gas has also stated publicly that 152,000 customers are more than 60 days behind on utility bills. This literally affects hundreds of thousands of households in our state.
While Governor Pritzker has offered an array of excuses ranging from “there are limits on what his office can do” to “balancing interests,” the reality is that the Illinois Governor has the power to issue an executive order by 20 ILCS 3305 Sec 7 (12), just as the Kentucky governor used KRS 39A.
Our country has enough trauma fighting simultaneously for democracy and against COVID, 210,000 deceased citizens having lost the latter battle. We look to Europe and see COVID numbers beginning to soar again, knowing we are not far behind. The #NoAmerenShutoffs Campaign is asking again, “Governor Pritzker, relieve this burden that has been forced on your people by corporate greed and an unstable man in the White House. Governor Pritzker, sign an executive order for a mandatory utilities moratorium.”
Allan Axelrod is a member of the Champaign-Urbana Democratic Socialists of America, with a background in data aggregation for local government offices and activist groups.