A lifeline for many Albertans at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has turned into a nasty surprise for some.
The Alberta Government’s Utility Payment Deferral Program Act helped hundreds of thousands of people and small businesses during the first three peak months of the pandemic.
But that program ended on June 18 and now those payments are due, leaving some Albertans struggling to pay their bills.
“I am completely aware that I owe these bills,” Calgary homeowner and Enmax customer Jeff Mann told Global News.
What he said he wasn’t aware of was when he had to pay them back.
“It wasn’t until recently that we found out that they they divided all the payments that were frozen into 10.”
“Now we’re given a $500 plus bill.”
The program actually allows for 12 payment installments, but the way Enmax’s billing cycle works, it works out to 10 for Mann.
Mann said it’s more realistic to have up to 24 months to pay, but when he questioned the timeline, he was told to pay up or be cut off.
“I was actually rather dumb-founded,” he said. “For a lot of folks that are not able to make these payments, you’ve got a week or you’re cut off. We’re in the cooler months, we’re not fully out of this pandemic, and essentially you feed your kids or you go without heat.”
Global News reached out to Enmax with Mann’s concerns.
“Enmax is currently not disconnecting customers for non-payment,” vice-president of Customer Care, Corry Poole said.
Poole added the company did not do any disconnections for those who did not pay during the deferral period, and it’s not planning to either.
Instead, she said Enmax is willing to work with customers paying back the money owed and has partnered with various community agencies to help those who need a little extra help.
“We know that it’s a troubling time for some Albertans and we want to work with them directly on a reasonable payment option for their utility bill.”
She added Enmax didn’t set the initial deferral or subsequent payback plan.
“The Alberta Government established a structured deferral program between the months of March and June,” she said. “At the end of the deferral period, customers were then allowed to defer those payments over a 10-month-period and create a payback period over that time.”
The pros and cons of deferrals
Canadians have also been allowed allowed to defer other payments during the pandemic, including mortgage and rent.
Credit counsellors say deferrals can definitely help in tough times.
“The benefit of deferring payment is we’re not going to have to make those payments today,” Mark Kalinowski of the Credit Counselling Society said.
But he also advised people make sure they know what they’re signing up for because deferring isn’t free.
“Those payments are going to go on to your additional payments and they’re going to grow and be quite substantial.”
Kalinowski also said the risks can be great if you don’t pay.
“For many people, their prime concern is that their credit is going to be impacted,” he said. “If our credit is impacted all of a sudden it becomes more expensive to borrow money or perhaps we get to the point where they won’t even lend us money.
“If we can avoid doing the deferrals and just making our payments as we go along, life will be simpler going forward.”
A costly lesson Mann said he’s learned as he gets prepared to pay it all back.
“Not much choice, not much choice,” he said. “Whether you can or cannot, the cooler months are here and you can either hover around a fire pit or you can freeze.”