Ontario utility, Westario Power, disconnects grandmother and single mom
Joanne Reynolds, her daughter and three grandchildren – ages one, two and eight – were disconnected from their electricity by Westario Power, a Walkerton, Ont. based utility company, on Nov. 28.
The Port Elgin, Ont. family of five survives on roughly $3,000 a month, and say they were cut off by Westario Power over $400 in late payments.
“I made a payday loan over the Internet and I paid them $400, but that wasn’t good enough,” said Reynolds. “They wanted another $105 – I think it was – and I couldn’t come up with it.”
Reynolds says she tried to scrape together the money for another payday loan through her daughter’s name, but her online banking account wouldn’t allow her to make any more payments.
“We couldn’t make that loan by the Monday, which is when they wanted it,” said Reynolds, who admits she’s received numerous disconnection notices in the past. “So I called them, explained what happened, and told them my disability cheque is in on, I think, Wednesday … It was kind of like, ‘well you’re not paying your bill so you can have a slap on the wrist and teach you not to do it again.’”
According to Reynolds, the slap on the wrist meant disconnecting the family’s power for a single day while they waited for the cheque to come in.
“I will give you the money tomorrow when my disability comes in,” said Reynolds, explaining how she tried to reason with the company. “She went and talked to her manager and ‘nope, we’re cutting it off today. If you pay the bill tomorrow we’ll turn it back on’ is what they told me.”
Although Reynolds says the company left a collections notice in her mailbox saying she’d need to pay an additional $800 deposit before being reconnected, customer service agents were quite helpful when she called the next day.
“As soon as I paid it, I called them and they had the power back on within a couple of hours,” Reynolds said. “It kind of felt like, ‘well you’re a bad girl here’s a slap on the wrist, right? Don’t do it again.’”
Though they were only cut off for a day, Reynolds says it had a serious impact on her daughter and three grandchildren.
“I sent my daughter, the mother of the three children, to her friend Eve’s who lives a couple doors down,” Reynolds said. “She stayed there as long as she could, but the kids couldn’t sleep. They’re not in their own beds, right? She brought them home, put them to bed. We’d give them extra blankets. They were good for the night. It wasn’t a cold night, thank God.”
Eve – herself a single mother of four – has also been threatened with disconnection by Westario Power. She says she receives notices nearly every month for being behind on her bills and worries she might be next.
Like, Reynolds, Eve Light says her monthly bills are more than $600 and higher during the winter.
She says she can’t afford to heat her home, put food on the table and provide all the basic necessities of life for her children.
“There’s no real break from it. You’re constantly catching up,” said Light. “The horrible thing is I’m used to it … I have four children. Sending them to school and all those extra things are… I can’t. At this point, it’s paying the hydro bill.”
Westario Power responds
Global News made at least 16 different attempts – including 12 phone calls, three emails and one attempt in person at their offices – to reach out to Westario Power for an interview over the course of the past two weeks, but the company refused to speak on camera or over the phone.
Instead, Westario Power CEO Lisa Milne – who received the majority of Global News’ calls and emails – responded with an email statement.
“Westario Power Inc. is a Local Distribution Company servicing approximately 23,000 customers in 15 communities located throughout Bruce, Grey, Huron and Wellington Counties,” said Milne. “Westario Power has established its Disconnection Policies and Practices to align with the rules and regulations as prescribed by the Distribution System Code as regulated by the Ontario Energy Board.”
The statement continues by outlining the ways in which the Westario Power helps customers connect with assistance programs – like the Ontario Electricity Support Program and the Low-income Energy Assistance Program – but provides no specific details with respect to either Reynold’s or Light’s cases.
“Westario Power is committed to working with its customers in meeting their payment obligations and work very hard to avoid disconnections, which are the absolute last resort,” Milne said.
WATCH: After half a year of investigating soaring hydro rates in Ontario, Global News has a comprehensive picture of how deep Hydro One customers are digging into their wallets for electricity. As Shirlee Engel reports, the poorest rural residents in the province are shouldering the biggest energy burden.
What are the OEB regulations?
While Westario Power’s disconnection policy does, indeed, align with the OEB’s regulations regarding disconnection, which include making sure customers are aware of electricity support programs such as the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program and the Ontario Electricity Support Program, the company is still among the minority when it comes to disconnecting customers in the winter.
In fact, as a result of Global News’ ongoing investigation into rising electricity costs in Ontario, even Hydro One – the province’s largest utility provider – has announced it is reconnecting more than 1,400 customers without power and launching a full-scale review of its customer related policies to ensure they’re applied fairly.
Rather than follow Hydro One’s lead, Westario Power is adhering to a disconnection policy that is at, or very near, the minimum standards outlined by the OEB.
WATCH: (Dec 7) Hydro One in Ontario is turning the lights on for Christmas. 14,000 families who have been disconnected are now being contacted by the utility so they can arrange late payments and get them out of the dark. Mike Drolet reports.
These standards include:
- Requiring utilities to make arrears management programs available to residential customers who qualify and are unable to pay their electricity bill.
- Prohibiting utilities from disconnecting a customer who has agreed to an arrears management program and is currently on payments.
- Customers must receive at least 10 days’ notice from their local utility before their service is disconnected.
- The notice must contain information about options such as equal billing and arrears management.
- The utility must also make reasonable efforts to contact the customer, in-person or by phone, at least 48 hours before disconnecting them.
- Finally, the utility must suspend disconnection for 21 days if the customer is being assessed for eligibility to receive emergency funding under the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program.
Westario Power’s disconnection policy is also out of tune with the direction both the government and the OEB appear to be moving.
“The Ontario government introduced legislation – Bill 27, the Burden Reduction Act – that, if passed as currently worded, would give the OEB more authority over how electricity distributors exercise their statutory right to disconnect for non-payment,” states a note published by the OEB outlining their own disconnection regulations.
“This would allow the OEB to make rules setting out periods when an electricity distributor cannot disconnect a residential or small business consumer.”
Meanwhile, Ontario’s Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault has indicated that if Bill 27 passes, he will encourage the OEB to implement a province-wide policy banning disconnections in the winter.
“The government is further empowering the Ontario Energy Board through new legislation that will allow the Board to set policies that prevent consumers from being disconnected during the winter months,” said a spokesperson for the Ministry of Energy. “As of Nov. 25, Hydro One instituted a policy to prohibit winter disconnection for its customers, passing Bill 27 would allow the OEB to implement similar policies across the board.”
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