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AARP Answers: Managing Utility Bills During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Companies will work with you on payments — but call them first

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I was laid off because of the coronavirus. How do I keep the lights on until I find new work?

Whether you are a customer of a big or small electric utility, the first step is to pick up the phone and call the company. Don't wait until you get a shutoff notice.

The good news: Electric utility providers will cut you a break, though you'll have to pay your bill, eventually. For example, Pacific Gas & Electric, which serves 5.4 million electric customer accounts in California, announced March 12 that it had stopped disconnecting residential and commercial customers for nonpayment. PG&E said in a statement that it wants to provide “some relief from the stress and financial challenges many are facing during this worldwide public-health crisis."

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Other electric utilities are following suit. Florida Power & Light, for one, has stopped disconnecting customers who can't pay and is offering payment extensions as well as waivers on some late fees to customers facing economic hardship. “We know this is a difficult and unsettling time,” FPL spokesman Matt Eissey said in a statement.

Still others are simply urging Americans to call if they are having difficulties. Perdernales Electric Cooperative, which has more than 300,000 customers in Central Texas, said simply, “Our agents are committed to finding a solution that works best for you.”

I'm out of work because of the coronavirus. If I lose my internet or my wireless phone, it's going to be a lot harder to get a job. Am I completely out of luck?

Not necessarily. On March 13, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai called on internet and wireless telephone providers to give consumers a break during the COVID-19 outbreak. He asked internet providers to sign a pledge not to disconnect any customers for the next 60 days, to waive any late fees and to open wi-fi hot spots to anyone who needs them. Dozens of companies, including Verizon, Comcast and U.S. Cellular, agreed to the pledge.

Other companies have gone further. Comcast, for instance, has given all its customers unlimited data for 60 days at no charge. And Verizon is offering free international long-distance calling to all countries identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as Level 3-affected by COVID-19. Further, it is offering 15 gigabytes of data for qualified plans. AT&T, meanwhile, is waiving domestic wireless plan overage charges for data, voice or text for residential or small-business wireless customers resulting from coronavirus-related economic hardship. And Dominion Energy is offering to reconnect customers whose power was shut off before the coronavirus.

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You may even get a few extra channels from your service provider to keep you entertained while you're under quarantine. As of April 1, Verizon is offering Showtime and Epix for free to its Fios TV customers, as well as learning and online study tools. Xfinity hot spots will be free nationwide.

I'm up to date on my bill, but there's a problem with the electric feed into my home. Is it safe to let someone into my home to take a look at it?

As far as we've come with telework, there's no online solution to snapped electrical wires or a problem with a gas line. You may have to let someone inside to make repairs. BGE, Maryland's largest gas and electric utility, says that it is educating workers on the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 and that employees will wear face masks and gloves while working in a residence, if necessary.

But not all utility workers may have masks and gloves, which are in short supply. So follow social distancing guidelines when a worker is in or near your home. No shaking hands; keep six feet apart, when possible; and try to have soap and hot water available for workers to wash their hands.

I just got a call from my electric company saying it will cut off my power if I don't pay my bill within 12 hours. What should I do?

You should assume that someone's trying to scam you. Utilities are reporting that some customers are getting fraudulent calls threatening to cut off their electricity or to take legal action unless there's an immediate payment. People impersonating utility company representatives may also call offering to lower your costs, once you supply them account and billing information.

Some tips to avoid getting scammed

  • Don't assume you can trust caller ID. Swindlers often spoof legitimate numbers.
  • If you receive a call warning you that your service will be shut off, hang up and call your utility at the phone number on your billing statement or go to the company's website to see if the call is legitimate. Do not call any number that the caller gives you, as it may be fake.
  • If a caller threatens or shouts at you, hang up and call your utility service.
  • If a caller asks for unusual forms of payment, such as gift cards, hang up.
  • Never give your account number, credit card number, bank information or other personal identification over the phone.

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