By Brian Hill, Global News.
WATCH ABOVE: Ontario mother describes her family’s struggles to pay high hydro bills and losing power for 6 months
Hydro One – the province’s largest utility provider – is conducting a case-by-case review of 1,425 customers living without electricity.
The announcement comes as a direct result of a Global News investigation profiling Ontario families that have been disconnected from their electricity service, including one whose disconnection Hydro One admitted was “unreasonable.”
According to Hydro One, the story of Carol – a pseudonym as Global News agreed to keep the family’s identity private – who along with her husband and four children had been living without electricity since June 14, is the reason behind this review as well as a number of pending changes to the company’s overall customer service approach.
“Yeah, I would say it was,” Ferio Pugliese, executive vice-president of customer service at Hydro One, said. “What it did was shed light on the need for my team to look at this further and to look at our policies and disconnections.”
Pugliese says discrepancies in the way Hydro One handled Carol’s case – particularly those surrounding the mishandling of an agreed upon payment arrangement – led him to put an immediate stop to all disconnections across the company’s province-wide network.
“I’m not sure that happened the very same day,” Pugliese said. “But we did take a look at all our disconnections .. at that point we were a week out of the moratorium. We just said look, the best thing to do right now is to pause.”
Pressed on whether Hydro One is considering reconnecting all customers currently without power while it conducts an internal review, Pugliese said it is something they are certainly looking at.
“It is within the realm of possibilities,” said Pugliese. “At this stage of the game we are just reviewing all the policies and I’m just going through each of the disconnects.”
Since taking on the chief customer service role at Hydro One at the end of September, Pugliese has pushed the company to become a more customer-centric service provider. He says that in the future, Hydro One will take more time to listen to its customers and will apply greater “reasonableness” before performing any disconnections.
In the specific case of Carol and her family, Pugliese says the company could have done better in applying its own policy and that greater flexibility might have prevented the family from being disconnected.
“They were dealing with a financial difficulty and it was a situation, you know, that was challenging,” said Pugliese. “When I look at this situation, what I would say is that we could have applied a greater degree of discretion to help the individual.”
WATCH ABOVE: A look at how Carol, her husband, and kids lived without power for nearly six months.
Carol, her husband, and her four kids were living without electricity for 164 days.
As Global News first reported last week, the family of six relied on gas-powered generators and flashlights to survive after Hydro One cut off their power.
Carol’s husband, who works full-time, filled plastic-lined garbage cans with a hose at work so he and his family could bathe.
At one point, Carol says, a neighbour called child protective services – fearing the couple’s four teenage children were not being adequately cared for.
“That was devastating. That was absolutely devastating,” Carol said.
She added that they did everything in their power to provide a sense of normalcy for their children while being disconnected.
“We have great kids. They’re well respected at school … and they’ve never caused any trouble.”
Following Global News’ report, Hydro One asked to speak with Carol. She was soon contacted by Pugliese, who having heard her story, apologized profusely.
“He was very apologetic,” said Carol. “He apologized for what we had gone through. Then he asked a bit of background about how this happened and how we ended up being disconnected.”
Carol says she lost count of the number of times Pugliese apologized before finally asking her to leave the situation in his hands.
Carol was then contacted by another Hydro One representative who informed her that her family’s power would be reconnected shortly.
“I had to go out so I turned the main breaker off,” Carol said. “The kids started yelling, just yelling. ‘The lights are on, the lights are on, mom look the lights are on.’ So I started crying and they started screaming and we came in and there it was.”
Carol says having electricity is so unusual for the children they still behave as if they’re living off a generator.
“It was very strange,” Carol said. “The kids for about a week kept wandering around with flashlights at night. You know, because they would bring it down to go use the washroom or whatever.”
For Carol, it’s the things she used to take for granted that she now appreciates the most.
“Five months and 10 days,” Carol said, describing how long it had been since she last had a hot shower. “I didn’t want to get out. But then I kept thinking about all the electricity I was using.”
What led to their disconnection?
Hydro One cut off Carol and her family over a little more than $3,000 in unpaid bills.
Like many Hydro One customers, Carol says she and her family were caught up in the smart meter billing fiasco that plagued the company between 2013 and 2015.
After not receiving bills for roughly six months, Carol says she and her husband received a catch-up bill of approximately $12,000 in September 2015.
Despite the heavy burden, the pair did everything they could to pay it off.
“We stuck with a payment plan. It was quite high,” Carol said. “It was around $810 I think for that first one if I remember correctly, plus our hydro costs which are high here.”
In total, Carol says she and her husband were paying roughly $1,800 to $2,000 a month for hydro between September 2015 and April 2016.
ABOVE: A look at one of the couple’s monthly hydro bills.
While still paying their normal monthly bills, they managed to pay down the catch-up bill from $12,000 to a little more than $3,000.
It’s at this point, according to both Carol and Pugliese, that Hydro One’s disconnection policy broke down.
“End of April my husband’s pay didn’t go in until the Tuesday at midnight,” Carol said. “We called [Hydro One] and said ‘you know our pay is not going to go in until seven or eight hours from now. Would you accept it and keep us on the payment plan?’”
Carol says Hydro One told her no and that the company’s computers would not allow them to accept a late payment. She would either need to make the payment immediately or be forced to pay the remaining balance in full.
“I said to my husband, we just can’t do it anymore,” Carol said. “We’d fallen behind on our mortgage. We’d fallen behind on everything else and I just said we can’t pay it. We just can’t do it.”
A few weeks later, Carol and her family were cut off – left to live without electricity for five and a half months.
Opposition parties react to Global News investigation
Patrick Brown, leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives, says he’s alarmed by the fact that more than half a million Ontarians can’t afford to pay their electricity bills. He says energy minister Glenn Thibeault and the Liberal government need to do more to address the growing problem of disconnections in Ontario.
“There’s a lot of families that simply can’t put food on the table, and now they are being disconnected in a fashion that seems to be inconsistent,” Brown said. “I am demanding the minister of energy do an investigation into this. There are families simply that cannot sustain their livelihood because of this hydro crisis.”
Referring to Carol’s story, Brown says customers in Ontario are doing everything they can to pay their bills, but just can’t make ends meet as a result of skyrocketing energy prices.
Brown says the government has a responsibility to Ontarians who have seen their electricity prices skyrocket as a result of what he describes as the “Liberal mess” with respect to energy policy.
“There is too much hardship and it has to be reconciled,” Brown said. “If I was the minister of energy, if I was the premier today I would have an investigation launched today into these cases.”
Andrea Horwath, leader of Ontario’s NDP, is calling on the government to put an end to disconnections.
“The bills are skyrocketing and the government needs to put a moratorium on any further disconnections until the hydro situation gets dealt with,” she said.
Horwath is also concerned that customers who are disconnected from their electricity services might be putting themselves at risk.
“We know already that there are people who are taking extreme measures. For example, hooking up their appliances to gas power generators which is not very safe,” Horwath said. “People are desperate and they should not be cut off of hydro, particularly with winter coming.”
WATCH: Hydro one in Ontario has put a moratorium on disconnects for the winter. But many, specifically seniors continue to struggle with higher rates. Mike Drolet reports.
Ontario’s energy minister, Glenn Thibeault, was not available for an interview prior to publication despite several attempts to reach out to him.
In a written statement, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Energy said the government is committed to ensuring vulnerable customers like Carol and her family have the resources they need to avoid disconnection.
The statement also encourages those struggling with their bills to reach out to their local utility provider to learn about assistance programs like the Low-income Energy Assistance Program – a program that provides emergency support to prevent disconnection, and which due to their income, Carol and her family did not qualify for.
Meanwhile, the Ontario Energy Board, the organization responsible for regulating the province’s energy sector, refuses to say whether it will launch an investigation given Hydro One’s admission the disconnection was “unreasonable.”
“The OEB has very stringent rules in place for disconnection,” Brian Hewson, vice-president of consumer protection at the OEB said. “Once a payment arrangement is made, that customer cannot be disconnected.”
Though Hewson said he cannot comment on the specific case of Carol and her family without more information, the OEB is reaching out to Hydro One to determine exactly what Hydro One meant when they said the family’s disconnection was “unreasonable.”
“Any customer who has a concern about a disconnection notice they receive can expect that the OEB will give it top priority,” Hewson said. “That’s why I would urge any customer that feels they’ve received a disconnection notice improperly that they reach out to the OEB.”
READ MORE: Rising energy costs and poverty collide in rural Ontario
According to Hewson, of the more than 59,000 residential customers in Ontario disconnected for non-payment last year, and the countless more who received disconnection notices but were not disconnected – the OEB does not require utility distributors to report information on the number of disconnection notices issued each year – only 500 or so actually contacted the OEB for help.
“The OEB has taken many steps to encourage and require greater customer engagement and customer-focused service by the utilities,” Hewson said. “It’s something we are always working with the sector to make sure it’s happening.”