The breakdown of all electricity and gas complaints by complaint category is shown in the graph and table below.
Table 3 – Complaint breakdown – Energy
||Number of complaints
||% of total energy complaints
|Refer to Higher Level
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect us all. In the energy market, bills are trending higher as customers spend more time at home, consuming more energy. Added to this, more people are out of work and could be struggling to pay all their bills, not just energy. This has increased pressure on retailers as unpaid or delayed bills affect their cash flow and potentially their viability. To help manage this situation, the Australian Energy Regulator’s Statement of Expectations sets out what retailers are expected to do when customers are experiencing financial difficulty. COVID-19 has also, at times, caused energy and water providers to delay or restrict certain work programs, such as reading meters, which has also affected customers.
The following case studies illustrate the issues that many customers are facing during the pandemic and the response to those issues by providers.
Business badly affected by COVID-19
A customer told EWON that his business had been gravely affected by COVID-19, and he was struggling to pay his bills. He said that the majority of other services he owed money to had agreed to waive a portion of their bills and offered help to pay the rest, however his energy retailer hadn’t offered any financial assistance with the $1000 outstanding on his account. We explained that a debt waiver was not an option but he could set up an affordable payment arrangement.
We spoke to the retailer and it offered to backdate a discount of 18% to the start of September 2019 as well as apply a customer service credit of $100 to the balance. This reduced the outstanding balance from $895 to $565. The retailer also offered a payment plan of $85 per fortnight. The customer confirmed that with the arrears reduced he could afford to pay the bill in full.
Pensioner distressed by estimated meter reads
A customer advised that she was on a pension and had moved premises in November 2019. Her energy retailer had issued her with an estimated bill for approximately $300 for the period January 2020 to April 2020 which she paid. She was advised that the bill had been estimated due to COVID-19. The retailer then issued her with a subsequent bill for $1300 for April 2020 to 27 July 2020. She had never been issued with a bill that high before and her usual bills were approximately $300 per quarter. She queried the amount with her retailer but was told the bill needed to be paid. Stressed because she was unable to afford the bill, the customer cried on the phone while talking to her retailer. At this point she contacted EWON.
The retailer explained to us that the high bill was a catch up due to an underestimation for the previous read. It agreed to refer the customer to its affordability program to pay the bill in smaller installments. When we told the customer about the retailer’s offer, she informed us she had paid her arrears and changed energy retailer.
Retailer supports customer in financial distress
A customer advised that her gas account had arrears owing of $2,842 and that her gas had been disconnected on 28 August 2020 for non-payment. She was experiencing affordability issues and had lost her job due to COVID-19. She wanted her supply to be reconnected and to set up an affordable payment plan for the arrears owing but she had not contacted the retailer.
We spoke to the customer’s retailer and arranged for reconnection. It said that the account balance was $2742, billed to 3 July 2020 and that her fortnightly usage was $67. The retailer told us it had not received any payment for just over 12 months. It referred her to its affordability program to set up a payment plan of $67 per fortnight and said it would consider a lesser amount per fortnight if this was unaffordable. It offered to apply a credit of $119 to her gas account for missed pay-on-time discounts as well as a customer service credit of $100. We told the customer about the offer and provided her with a referral for EAPA assistance.
Unfair conditions placed on assistance
A customer advised that he was recently released from prison, was experiencing financial difficulty and had been affected by COVID-19. He had received an electricity bill from his energy retailer for $728 which was based on an estimated read. He contacted his retailer and asked to be put on an affordable payment plan. The retailer asked the customer for more information about his personal circumstances, in particular the reason why he had been incarcerated. He wasn’t pleased with the request for personal information and felt his retailer had been unhelpful.
We contacted the retailer and it confirmed that the request for information relating to his incarceration was unnecessary and offered him an apology. The retailer offered to contact the customer about a financial assessment and payment plan and offered a $50 credit as a customer service gesture. The customer said he was happy with this outcome and accepted the offer.
Payment plan not provided by retailer
A customer advised that she had been receiving monthly electricity bills from her retailer for 12 months. She lived on her own, used minimal appliances and did not believe the bills reflected her power use. She said she had contacted her energy retailer in April 2020 to complain about her high bill and advised that she was unemployed due to COVID-19. She said she was seeking assistance and a payment plan but was told that the billing was correct, a response she was unhappy with.
We spoke to the retailer and it agreed to reduce the balance to $150 and negotiate a payment plan. It pointed out that monthly billing on an old meter would always generate estimates and offered to replace the meter so that she could receive actual reads each month.
Debt referred to collection agency
A customer closed his account in March 2020 and told the retailer that he would set up a payment plan once he received his final bill. He told EWON that he did not receive a bill but was contacted by SMS with a demand for payment of $4,849. He was shocked at how high the bill was and so contacted his retailer and was told that the debt was being transferred to a credit collection agency, and so nothing could be done. He asked to have the debt returned to the retailer and to have a payment plan put in place. He told EWON that he wasn’t given the opportunity to set up a payment plan and was concerned that the referral of the debt to a collection agency would adversely affect his credit record.
An EWON investigation established that he had closed the account and a final bill had been sent soon after by email. The retailer also said the final billed accounts were referred to a third party to assist with following up on the debt and, as the third party was working for the retailer, it had not sold the debt. The retailer offered to provide a copy of the final bill and offered a 12 month repayment plan of $404 per month and said that if there were COVID-19 circumstances, it would consider further options. When informed of these options the customer explained that his family had very limited income as his wife had lost her job and he was waiting on a compensation settlement. He could only afford $20 per fortnight. We explained this to the retailer who then agreed to place a hold on the account for 12 months and agreed to a$20 per fortnight payment and to renegotiate a new payment plan after 12 months.