‘Is cruelty just the point?’: Coalition demands end to utility shutoffs

After cutting off power to 8,691 homes in October, Evergy quietly stopped

Clockwise from left: Claire Chadwick, of the Poor People's Campaign in Kansas, Brandy Granados, of KC Tenants, and Ivonne Gutierrez, a child care provider in Kansas City, Kansas, participate in a video conference Thursday to urge political leaders to impose a moratorium on utility shutoffs. (Screenshots by Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Every week, Claire Chadwick says, an Evergy truck enters her low-income apartment complex in Johnson County to force another struggling family into an impossible financial situation.

Chadwick said the electric utility sent an employee to confront her at her door without prior warning after she missed two months of payments. Through threatening and demeaning language, she said, she was given this choice: Live without electricity or enter into an agreement to pay what she owes — with the caveat of suffering financial penalties and immediate loss of power if she is even a day late on another bill.

“It is wrong and immoral in any society, but especially during a pandemic, to threaten utility shutoffs and evictions to those of us who are already suffering from the preexisting conditions of poverty and economic instability,” she said.

Johnson County resident Claire Chadwick says greed and a lack of will by legislative leaders prevents people from taking care of one another. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

Chadwick on Thursday joined other speakers in a conference call organized by Build Power MoKan, an “energy justice coalition” taking on electric utilities in Kansas and western Missouri. The coalition of advocacy organizations is asking governors in both states to impose a moratorium on utility shutoffs for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to reinstate service to those who have been cut off.

Gina Penzig, a spokeswoman for Evergy, said the service described by Chadwick is unacceptable, that the payment plan doesn’t impose fees or interest, and that residential customers who had power shut off can regain service by calling to make payment arrangements.

She also said the utility stopped turning off power for nonpayment in November, and will keep the moratorium in place until March 1.

“We did not make an announcement,” Penzig said. “We have been working with customers one on one as they contact us.”

The utility tweeted the announcement during the Build Power MoKan conference call.

Zach Pistora, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club in Kansas, said he was surprised by the revelation of Evergy’s “secret moratorium.” Utility representatives indicated in conversations earlier this year, Pistora said, that they didn’t want people to know they could get away with not paying their bills and still keep their power.

In October, as the days grew short and the nights grew cold, Evergy shut off power to 8,691 customers in Kansas, Pistora said.

Chadwick, who volunteers with the Poor People’s Campaign in Kansas, described herself as a low-wage essential worker who was diagnosed with COVID-19 while working for a big box retailer in March. She suffered shortness of breath, fatigue, coughing and other symptoms. After returning to work, the medical bills multiplied — for CT scans, heart monitors, asthma inhalers and a multitude of doctor’s appointments.

“It is only greed and the lack of will of legislative leaders keeping us from taking care of one another in our communities during an unprecedented pandemic,” Chadwick said. “That is why we must rise up and demand what is necessary, what is moral and what is right.”

Brandy Granados, a single mother of a special needs child, said her life turned upside down when she was laid off as a temporary worker in March. Because she lives on the Missouri side of Kansas City but works in Kansas, navigating the unemployment process was “virtually impossible,” she said.

At times, she has gone up to six weeks without any kind of income. Without electricity, she said, her son can’t participate in remote learning, and she can’t feed him without a working refrigerator or stove.

“I’ve received disconnect notices from utility companies. It’s scary. It’s stressful,” Granados said. “I’ll be honest, when facing eviction, rent comes first, before electricity, gas or water. You give up light so you have a roof over your head. You hope that your landlord doesn’t use this as an excuse to evict you. You heat your house with a stove and you sleep on the kitchen floor. You do everything you can to protect your family.”

Granados is a leader with KC Tenants, which works to ensure safe and affordable homes. She said she started to ask herself why political leaders weren’t making sure their constituents have what they need to safely shelter at home.

“They just keeping failing us,” Granados said. “Is cruelty just the point?”

Ivonne Gutierrez, a Kansas City, Kansas, resident and child care provider, said she has seen the health of children affected by utility shutoffs.

Speaking in Spanish with a translator, she said many families impacted by the loss of electricity are single mothers and their children.

“Families will be devastated because they will not know how to cope with the unforeseeable chain of events that vulnerable families are most likely to experience, including homelessness, suicide, and other forms of racial discrimination,” Gutierrez said.