AER: Retailers must support their customers as COVID-19 continues

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Energy businesses have an ongoing responsibility to assist customers who have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, says the Australian Energy Regulator (AER).

Launching the AER’s Statement of Expectations 2, Chair Clare Savage said the regulator expects energy businesses to extend their support to people impacted by the pandemic until at least the end of October.

“When people have lost their jobs or business through no fault of their own, it is only fair to expect that they be given any and all help possible, including from their energy providers,” Ms Savage said.

“We are asking energy retailers to listen to their customers and any financial counsellors they may choose to engage. Their customers are best placed to know their own circumstances and what they can afford to pay right now.

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“At a time like this, it is vital energy companies remember their broader social obligations. The AER will continue to closely monitor how retailers provide relief and support to their customers and will call out retailers who don’t meet these expectations.

“We recognise many energy networks and retailers are doing great work in providing additional assistance to their customers during this time and this needs to continue, particularly through the coming months.”

AER monitoring suggests an increase of approximately 20,000 customers on payment plans in March 2020 compared to December 2019. Many customers have sought payment deferrals from retailers during the pandemic with energy debt now totalling $35.3m for approximately 39,500 households and small businesses as of July 2020.

The AER’s Statement of Expectations 2 is very clear that people who can pay their bills, should. A payment deferral is not a waiver.

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It’s also clear about what’s expected of energy businesses. This includes helping residential and small business customers impacted by the pandemic by:

  • providing information about concessions, rebates and other support
  • offering a payment plan that’s based on their capacity to pay with a no payment window if required
  • not disconnecting anyone who is in contact with them
  • immediately reconnecting anyone who may be disconnected once they make contact and waiving any associated fees
  • not referring them to debt collection agencies for recovery actions or credit default listing.

Ms Savage said the AER understands that its expectations may add to the risks and costs facing energy businesses and is closely monitoring the data being provided by retailers.

“We are continuing our proactive work with all stakeholders on options to appropriately balance these risks and costs across the sector and to ensure energy businesses get the assistance they may need in the coming months. This includes through our proposed rule change on deferred network charges and enhanced data collection,” she said.