While the height of the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, many people still need help paying for essentials like utilities and rent due to higher prices and inflation.
Rising natural gas prices drove up electricity bills.
“Costs have not lowered while support programs have begun to dry up,” said Josh Dunn, vice president of investments and partnership strategies for United Way Suncoast. “The root causes of financial stability have not been addressed since the pandemic, and the number of families living check to check increases.”
To help those customers, Duke Energy Florida works with agencies and offers its own programs to help people during tough financial times.
The company distributed $600,000 in fall 2022 to 10 community agencies across Florida to help customers cover expenses, including housing and food. This is in addition to $132,000 the company provided through its Share the Light Fund to help 150 customers pay their energy bills.
Share the Light Fund brings together customers and communities to help those who are struggling to pay their bills. All the money collected is distributed monthly to 14 social service agencies, like United Way Suncoast, to assist Duke Energy Florida customers, based on need.
“Partners are really critical,” said Melissa Seixas, Duke Energy state president in Florida. “They are our lifeline to communities and they're also calling not just about electric or utility bills, but about other services. If customers can get assistance in any part of their lives, that helps.”
In Pinellas County, Fla., last year, community members placed over 85,000 calls to Florida's 2-1-1 line, a program that provides access to counseling, disaster assistance, housing and utilities payment assistance. Twelve percent of those callers said they needed help paying utility bills.
“Duke Energy and Share the Light Fund is an essential partnership because what we're looking for is to create stability for families,” Dunn said. “You cannot have a stable family that is afraid of losing their electricity.”
For years, Duke Energy Florida also has partnered with the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team.
“They're very creative,” Seixas said. “And because we've had such a long history with them, we’ve had a few different programs over the years for the greater good.”
When the Rays win, Duke Energy donates $1,000 to Share the Light Fund. “People may not think they should call the utility for assistance,” said Seixas. “Baseball games are another way of getting the word out and meeting people where they are.”
Duke Energy Florida also encourages customers to take advantage of company programs.
Tool kits help explain energy use and share efficiency recommendations. For example, “Fans cool people, not rooms,” Seixas said. “If you’re not in the room, turn the fan off.”
Peak times of day also cost more than others, so customers should call and ask about local peak times and then try to use energy during off-peak hours.
“If a customer is having trouble with payments, they need to call us,” said Seixas. “We want the opportunity to understand their situation and determine if this is a longer-term issue or short term, and then we can work with them on payment arrangements, extensions, and other resources and solutions.”
For example, many customers don’t realize that they control their payment date.
“If somebody's on a fixed income, like Social Security, and their check comes on the second Wednesday of every month but their power bill is due on the first or third day of the month, it can be really problematic,” Seixas said. “We want customers to have options.”
Customers can also select even billing, which projects an average monthly payment based on usage history. That way, during peak months, customers know what to expect and won’t be surprised by higher-than-normal bills.
If the problem is more long term, like loss of employment, Duke Energy can point customers to local agencies that step in to fill these community needs.
“Every household has a different story,” said Seixas, “and that is why we've got to work so hard to have different options available to our customers.
“We know this is a difficult time that seems to get extended and we’re here to help,” she said. “We have empathy for customers and what they are facing.”