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Help With Your Utility Bills: New Jersey’s Utility Assistance Programs and Extended COVID Shutoff Protections

Many households in New Jersey don’t have enough income to meet basic needs, and COVID has only added to the challenges. This winter, it may be especially difficult to cover the cost of utilities like oil, gas, water, and electricity.

Moratorium on Shutoffs

COVID Utility Protections Extended Until December 31, 2021

On June 14, 2021, Governor Murphy issued Executive Order No. 246 extending existing COVID-related protections against utility service shut-offs in New Jersey through December 31, 2021.  In a signal that this will likely be the final extension of these protections, the new Executive Order provides that the “moratorium” period will end on June 30, 2021, while also providing a grace period during which the same protections will continue until December 31, 2021.  

New and expanded utility assistance programs are expected to be in place by October 1, 2021, and it will be important for customers with back utility bills to apply for these new and expanded benefits when they become available.  Customers can also apply for existing benefit programs now – information about existing utility assistance programs is available here.

The COVID-related protections being extended include the following:

  • Electric, Gas, and Water:  No shut-offs of residential electric, gas, and water service for non-payment by any provider, whether publicly or privately owned, will be allowed until after December 31, 2021.  
  • Internet and Telephone:  For households that have one or more school-aged children using the account for educational purposes, no shut-offs of residential internet and telephone service will be allowed until after December 31, 2021.  In households where circumstances change such that one or more school-aged children will be using the account for educational purposes, the provider must reconnect any internet or telephone service that is currently shut off.  For customers with arrears who are not covered by these protections, providers are required to offer payment plans that extend for at least 12 months.

Energy Assistance Programs

The Universal Service Fund (USF) and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) are two programs that work together. There is a single application form for both programs. Another program, called Lifeline, can also provide assistance with energy bills to seniors and people with disabilities.

You can apply online directly through the USF/LIHEAP Online Application Portal. You can also apply for USF and LIHEAP through a local community action agency or community-based organization in your area. If you need help finding an agency that accepts applications, call 1-800-510-3102 or visit New Jersey Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and Universal Service Fund (USF). You can also get a copy of the USF/LIHEAP application form on the NJ Department of Community Affairs (DCA) website.

Unless you are automatically enrolled from another program, as described in the next paragraph, you have to file a new USF/LIHEAP application each year, even if you received benefits before.

Some applicants for food stamps, PAAD, Lifeline Energy Assistance, and Medicare Part D are automatically screened for USF benefits and/or enrolled in LIHEAP and do not have to fill out a separate USF/LIHEAP application. In general, this is done for applicants who are eligible for the other program, who pay for heat, and who live in a household that includes only members who are considered in determining eligibility for both programs. If you are not sure whether you have been considered for USF and LIHEAP benefits, call the USF/LIHEAP program information number above to find out whether you should submit a USF/LIHEAP application.

What are the USF and LIHEAP income limits?

If your monthly income is at or below the levels in the following USF/LIHEAP chart, you may be eligible for USF and/or LIHEAP assistance.

USF/LIHEAP Income Eligibility Chart 2020/2021

  Household  
Size

USF
  Program  

LIHEAP
  Program  

1

$1,967

$2,127

2

$2,658

$2,873

3

$3,349

$3,620

4

$4,039

$4,367

5

$4,730

$5,113

6

$5,421

$5,680

7

$6,111

$6,607

8

$6,802

$7,353

9

$7,439

$8,100

10

$8,183

$8,847

11

$8,847

$9,072

12

$9,565

$9,257

 For each additional household member

add $691

add $185


THE UNIVERSAL SERVICE FUND (USF) PROGRAM

USF provides a monthly credit on gas and electric bills. The credit helps to ensure that eligible customers will only be required to pay 6% of their household income for gas and electric service.

The USF program provides assistance to customers of the seven New Jersey gas and electric public utility companies. They are:

  • Public Service Electric & Gas Company (PSE&G)
  • Atlantic City Electric
  • Jersey Central Power & Light (JCP&L)
  • Rockland Electric Company (Orange and Rockland counties)
  • New Jersey Natural Gas Company
  • South Jersey Gas Company
  • Elizabethtown Gas Company

Utility customers are eligible for a monthly USF credit on their utility bills if they meet two conditions.

  • First, your household income must be at or below 185% of the federal poverty guidelines. (See chart at left for income limits that apply this year.)
  • Second, your expected utility costs must be more than 3% of household income for electric service, 3% of household income for natural gas, or 6% of household income for all-electric heat customers.

Also, the name on the application must be the same as the name on the utility bill.

How do USF benefits work?

USF assistance reduces your utility bill every month. Each customer receiving USF assistance gets a monthly credit. The credit is based on an estimate of the amount of energy the household will use in the next year. Usually, this estimate reflects past energy use at the same property.

The utility then subtracts the amount of your USF credit from your utility bill each month. It’s that simple!

Will my utility bills be the same each month on USF?

Only if you are on your utility company’s budget billing plan. Then, the utility company will charge you a flat amount each month, based on its estimate of your household’s annual usage, less your monthly USF credit.

But, there may still be surprises. Your actual gas or electric usage will probably turn out to be different from the amount the utility estimated. If that is the case, your bill will be adjusted to reflect the difference. This process of “truing up” should take place at least once every six months.

The beginning of the heating season can be a good time to get on a budget billing plan, because the budget billing plan will spread some heating costs into the following summer. There is no effect on LIHEAP or USF eligibility or benefits.

If you do not join your utility’s budget billing plan, your bill will vary from month to month. It will reflect the amount of your utility use each month, less your USF credit.

The good news is that either way, if you use less energy, you will have to pay less. But you will have to pay more if you use more energy than estimated.

One thing that you can do to keep costs down is to contact your local weatherization program office to find out if you are eligible for free improvements to your home. For more information about applying for weatherization assistance, you can contact the state USF/LIHEAP hotline at 1-800-510-3102, or contact the LSNJLAWSM hotline at 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529).

What if I have overdue bills from past years?

If you have past-due bills over $60, and you have not been on USF before, USF will forgive that outstanding balance if you simply keep up with your current monthly bills for one year after you first start to receive a USF credit. This part of the program is called Fresh Start.

You should be placed in the Fresh Start program automatically if you qualify. The utility company cannot disconnect your service for nonpayment of overdue bills that are part of the Fresh Start program.

If you miss monthly payments during the year you are on Fresh Start, your utility company should send you reminder letters. This will give you a chance to catch up.

You will have three more months at the end of the initial 12-month per-iod to make up any missed payments. Each customer, though, gets just one 12-month period (with a three-month grace period at the end) in which to get rid of overdue bills.

Are there any other limits on USF benefits?

There are two other limits to the amount of a recipient’s USF credit. One limit is that the largest credit a customer can receive is $150 each month, or $1,800 each year. The other is that all customers must pay at least $8 per month, even if that is more than 6% of their income.

If one of these limits applies to you and that causes a hardship, call the Board of Public Utilities, Division of Customer Assistance, at 1-800-624-0241, and contact the LSNJLAWSM Hotline at 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529) to let us know that this is the case. There may be additional sources of assistance that can help. If there are not, then it is important to let the Board know that these limits can cause hardships.

THE LIHEAP PROGRAM

The Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) provides a single annual heating assistance grant during the heating season and, in some cases, other one-time grants.

Who is eligible for LIHEAP?

LIHEAP covers more households than USF. You can be eligible for LIHEAP no matter what fuel source you use (oil, propane, and wood heat, for example, are included), and even if you are a tenant with utilities included in your rent.

To be eligible for LIHEAP benefits, you must be responsible for home heating or cooling costs. This means either that you pay utility bills yourself, or that your utilities are included in the rent. You must also have gross income below 200% of the federal poverty level (see the USF/LIHEAP Income Eligibility Chart for monthly income guidelines). While almost all income received by anyone in the household is counted, some is not. For example, most income received by a full-time student is not counted. Also excluded are payments received from SNAP (food stamps), or from other energy assistance programs, such as Lifeline.

How do LIHEAP benefits work?

LIHEAP provides single-payment grants to help with energy costs. The amount of the basic LIHEAP heating benefit varies from less than $100 to more than $1,000, based on income, household size, fuel type, and heating region. Benefits are highest for homeowners with electric heat, or who heat with oil, propane, wood, and other “deliverable” fuels. See the LIHEAP Benefit Grid (from the NJ Department of Community Affairs) for a chart of LIHEAP benefit levels.  This site also has links to the USF/LIHEAP application form, contact information for intake agencies, and other information about New Jersey energy assistance programs.

How are LIHEAP benefits paid?

If your home is heated with natural gas or electricity, you may have your LIHEAP payment sent directly to the utility company. Otherwise, in most cases, a two-party check (made out to you and to your fuel supplier) will be sent to you. If your heat is included in the rent, your check will be made out directly to you.

I live in public housing. Can I still get LIHEAP assistance?

People who live in public housing and/or receive rental assistance are only eligible for LIHEAP if they pay their own utility costs directly to the utility company.

LIHEAP Emergency Crisis and Medically Necessary Cooling Assistance

LIHEAP can sometimes provide additional emergency assistance if you have no heat or are in danger of losing your heat, and you don’t have enough money to solve the problem yourself. You may be able to get help with an emergency fuel delivery or have utility service restored. If you are a homeowner, you may be able to get emergency help to fix your furnace. A tenant who pays for utilities can get assistance for emergency help to restart a furnace. In some energy-related emergencies, LIHEAP can even provide temporary shelter or help in preventing an eviction.

Above and beyond heating assistance, an eligible household that shows a medical need can receive an additional LIHEAP grant to help with summer cooling costs.

For more information about USF and LIHEAP, call 1-866-240-1347, visit Energy Assistance (from the NJ Department of Community Affairs), or call LSNJLAWSM, Legal Services of New Jersey’s statewide, toll-free legal hotline, at 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529).

LIFELINE ENERGY ASSISTANCE PROGRAM

“Lifeline” refers to three different state programs for seniors and people with disabilities:

  • The Lifeline Credit Program,
  • The Tenants’ Lifeline Assistance Program, and
  • The Special Utility Supplement.

How does Lifeline work?

You can be eligible for the Lifeline Credit Program or Tenants’ Lifeline Assistance Program if you are a residential electric or gas customer or a tenant with utilities included in the rent, and are in one of the following categories:

  • You receive Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Aged, Blind and Disabled (PAAD);
  • You meet the eligibility requirements for PAAD;
  • You receive Medical Assistance to the Aged (MAA);
  • You receive Medical Assistance Only (MAO); or
  • You receive New Jersey Care (NJ Medicaid based on your age or disability).

The Lifeline Credit Program makes a one-time payment, currently $225, on a yearly basis toward an eligible customer’s gas and electric bill. If you receive service from two different utility companies, then the benefit is split between the two.

The Tenants’ Lifeline Assistance Program provides a $225 check to tenants who have gas and electric costs included in the rent.

The Special Utility Supplement is for SSI recipients who are not eligible for Lifeline Credit or Tenants’ Lifeline Assistance. The yearly supplement is divided into monthly installments and is added to the recipient’s SSI check. The current supplement is $18.25 per month.

How do I apply for Lifeline?

People applying for PAAD also apply for a Lifeline benefit by answering the questions that pertain to Lifeline programs.

Beneficiaries of Medical Assistance to the Aged (MAA), Medical Assistance Only (MAO), or New Jersey Care are sent Lifeline applications automatically every August.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients do not need to file an application for Lifeline. The Lifeline benefit is automatically included in your monthly SSI payment.

For more information about Lifeline, call 1-800-792-9745, visit Lifeline (from the NJ Department of Human Services), or call LSNJLAWSM, Legal Services of New Jersey’s statewide, toll-free legal hotline, at 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529).

Water Assistance Programs

New Jersey does not currently have a statewide water assistance program. However, customers of New Jersey American Water, Suez Water (formerly United Water), AQUA New Jersey, and the Newark and Parsippany-Troy Hills municipal water utilities may be eligible for help with their water bills through programs administered by NJSHARES. More information is available at New Jersey Share's Water page, or by calling 866-657-4273.            ​​​​​​​​

8/4/2021