COVID-19 and customer hardship support

30 Mar 2020

We are all facing significant challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with people and businesses’ day-to-day living and working arrangements, health and wellbeing and income-earning capacities all actually or potentially adversely affected.

The Commission recognises that these factors may well have impacts on customers of essential services, in terms of both usage (with more people being at home more of the time) and affordability, with the potential for an increasing number of customers finding it difficult to pay their bills.

Under the Commission’s existing regulatory regime, all licensed water, sewerage, LPG and off-grid electricity service providers have a part to play in supporting customers through the current pandemic and as we move into the recovery phase. The Commission acknowledges that, as responsible businesses, service providers understand and appreciate this, including their existing regulatory responsibilities in relation to customer hardship assessments and programs, as well as requirements in relation to alternative and flexible billing and payment arrangements.

The Commission notes, however, that service providers should also consider additional customer support options at this time. This is particularly the case in relation to providing access to alternative payment and hardship plans, other billing and payment terms and periods, the management of existing and future customer debt, disconnections, restrictions or legal debt-recovery actions and, crucially, maintaining and clearly communicating to customers current and accurate information on these (and related) issues. 

The Commission will continue to closely monitor customer outcomes through market intelligence gathering and analysis and ongoing engagement with the Energy and Water Ombudsman. If it becomes aware of any areas of genuine customer concern and hardship that are not being appropriately addressed by a service provider under the regulatory framework, we will move quickly to address those matters so as to maintain appropriate consumer protections.

The Commission also appreciates that service providers’ business operations and activities will be affected at this time. Where a service provider becomes aware of regulatory arrangements which, in the current circumstances, might genuinely and demonstrably adversely impact on its capacity to deliver services to customers, the Commission would ask for engagement on those matters as early as possible. We will liaise with service providers, customers and customer representatives, Government and our stakeholders generally in relation such concerns including, where appropriate and necessary, more flexible regulatory approaches that will enable a strong and continued focus on meeting their customers’ needs.