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WASHINGTON — On Monday, 830 utility-justice, environmental, faith, digital-rights and civil-rights groups sent a letter to Congress calling for the next congressional COVID-19 relief package to include a moratorium on broadband, electricity and water shutoffs.

The letter also calls for stimulus funds to address the systemic issues that lead to shutoffs. These issues include racial and economic inequities that can be addressed with improved affordable broadband programs including Lifeline; distributed solar energy; and percentage-of-income water-affordability initiatives.

The coronavirus crisis has triggered unemployment to levels that are unprecedented in U.S. history, and this has disproportionately harmed low-income households and communities of color. These households are facing disconnections and unaffordable rates for utility services that are first lines of defense during this national health emergency.

Congress failed to include any utility-service protections in earlier coronavirus-relief packages despite vast public support for such measures. Today’s letter calls for a nationwide moratorium on all utility disconnections. The letter also advocates for reconnections for lost services and forgiveness of late fees and bill payments for economically distressed people. The letter, led by the Center for Biological Diversity, Food & Water Action, Free Press Action and Partnerships for Southern Equity, calls on Congress to extend these protections for six months after the emergency ends, allowing people to recover economically without the burden of debt.

“Unfortunately, millions of families each year are cut off from their utility services, and the coronavirus emergency exacerbates and highlights the urgency of these chronic issues,” the letter reads. “These utility services must be retained to ensure basic family survival and to fight the health pandemic at ground zero.”

“Right now, an affordable broadband connection can mean the difference between being employed or unemployed, healthy or sick, connected with the outside world or trapped in isolation,” said Dana Floberg, policy manager at Free Press Action. “As the pandemic forces people out of work, millions more people, especially low-income families and communities of color, will find themselves unable to pay for broadband. No one should lose access to lifesaving and necessary communications tools during this crisis. Congress must act swiftly. We must end the shutoffs that leave vulnerable families digitally stranded and fund the emergency broadband-connectivity programs to get and keep impacted communities online.”

“It’s unconscionable that Senate Republicans chose to protect corporate America over families in the last rescue package,” said Jean Su, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s energy justice program. “Families are facing impossible choices between paying for food or electricity, water or health care. Congress should ensure that all utilities are kept on and should invest in long-term solutions like community solar that aren’t dependent on dirty corporate-utility power that can be cut off in a crisis.”

“Our nation is in crisis and we are once again woefully underprepared to address the systemic injustices exacerbated by this pandemic head on,” said Chandra Farley, just energy director at the Partnership for Southern Equity. “Low-income households, particularly Black and Latino households that already spend a larger portion of their income on home-energy costs, need a national moratorium on utility shutoffs now. As bills continue to rise due to utility-rate hikes and expensive, dirty-energy infrastructure, Congress should invest in the economic engine of energy efficiency and pollution-free, clean energy that we know can lower utility bills and improve the overall health of historically marginalized communities.”

“There is absolutely no excuse left for Congress to exclude basic human needs from the next coronavirus stimulus package, or in general,” said Rianna Eckel, senior national water organizer at Food & Water Action. “People are facing the reality of living through a summer without running water right now. We need national action to protect every single person in this country from inhumane utility shutoffs, nothing less.”

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