The COVID-19 pandemic is hitting many families so hard financially that utility companies across the mountains are reporting major increases in the number of customers unable to pay to keep their lights on.
There has been a 12% increase in customers who are 30 days delinquent in paying bills compared to this time last year, Duke Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Progress reported.
Duke Energy, which serves 3.4 million North Carolina residents, reported a balance of more than $170 million in delinquent bills for residential customers across North Carolina.
Su Vandehey, who lives in Asheville, has been struggling for months to stay afloat.
“It’s been very stressful,” said Vandehey, who finished school to become a massage therapist last year. “The testing centers were closed (because of the pandemic), so I was then unable to get licensed and start my business."
Vandehey, who is raising a 5-year-old daughter and has another on the way, is working part-time doing food delivery.
“I thought I had a whole plan for how this year was going to go," she said.
Christian nonprofit ABCCM paid Vandehey's delinquent utility bill.
Duke Energy spokesman Jason Walls said the company is doing what it can to help people who are struggling.
“Turning off a customer’s power is the absolute last resort, and we don’t want to do that," Walls said.
Duke also offers interest-free extended payments.
Vandehey misunderstood a bill she received in October and feared Duke was about to turn her power off. But the bill actually said Duke was about to begin the process. Still she was scared.
“ABCCM was the last place I went to, and they were finally able to help us," Vandehey said.
“We want to work with each customer to come up with payment arrangements and agreements or connect them with assistance agencies” Walls said.
Dominion Energy, which supplies natural gas in winter to heat homes, also said the number of delinquent bills is also climbing. But the spokeswoman wasn't able to collect figures compared to the company's 2019 numbers for the same time. The company is offering 12 month installment plans with no interest for people who are struggling to pay utility bills.