Consumers Energy, a Jackson-based public utility, has pledged $12 million in COVID-19 relief funds to support residential and small business customers who are behind in electric and gas bills.
“We stand with Michigan and are working around the clock to help our friends and neighbors through a time like no other,” said Patti Poppe, Consumers Energy’s president and CEO, in a statement.
In an online news conference Tuesday morning, Poppe said the $12 million in relief funds is the largest Consumers has ever pledged and the first time for small businesses, many of whom are directly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We can’t stop the pandemic but we can help our customers weather the storm” and provide a “lifeline for small businesses and families to help them stay on their feet until this is over,” Poppe said.
The goal is to help at least 25,000 households with up to $500 in bill credits for overdue residential energy bills and 1,000 small businesses with up to $5,000 in bill credits. The funding will go directly to customers in need and to Michigan nonprofit organizations.
Brian Rich, Consumers’ chief customer officer, said the best way for people to get help is to call 2-1-1, a free service that connects people with nonprofit agencies in their communities, including Consumers’ financial help line.
Customers of Consumers Energy who are struggling with bill payments can also call 800-477-5050.
Of the $12 million pledged, Rich said $1 million will go to the nonprofit Heat and Warmth Fund program, $3 million to expand Consumers’ existing Care program and $8 million to other customers, including small businesses that had to shut down or that have unique needs.
Rich said Consumers has more than 40,000 customers who are overdue in their monthly bills or have other troubles. Since March, the company so far has assisted 18,000 customers with late bills and its charitable foundation has provided more than $16 million to help Michigan residents.
“We have not disconnected any (residential) customers” and have suspended shut-offs for nonpayment, said Rich, adding that Consumers resumed disconnections for some business customers in late July.
“We’ve worked very collaboratively with Michigan Public Service Commission and the Department of Health and Human Services to really focus our efforts on getting customers the assistance they need,” Rich said.
Poppe said Consumers noticed that some individuals and small businesses are having difficulty in paying bills for the first time.
“For those people who are asking for help for the first time, please don’t be afraid, call us,” Poppe said. “Our contact center agents are so kind and want to be there to help you and make sure you get the help that you need so you can stay on your feet.”
Poppe said she understands that small business owners are not accustomed to asking for help.
“We’re there for them too. That’s what’s kind of unique about this program is definitely people who have never qualified for assistance before are eligible, as well as businesses are eligible,” she said. “That’s never been a program we’ve offered before. So it truly is unprecedented.”
Over the next year, Consumers also said customers should pay 20 percent less for energy compared to a decade ago, or less than $2.30 a day, for natural gas.
Consumers Energy, Michigan’s largest energy provider, is the principal subsidiary of CMS Energy (NYSE: CMS), providing natural gas and/or electricity to 6.7 million of the state’s 10 million residents in all 68 Lower Peninsula counties.