Trenton resident Michelle Lewis is in the process of looking for a job. She has to scramble for money each month in order to afford the rent payment for her apartment.

But one thing she won't have to worry about in March is losing her electric or gas service. The same, however, can't be said for hundreds of thousands of residential customers throughout the Garden State.

Since July, Lewis has been a recipient of benefits through New Jersey's Universal Service Fund, which helps residents afford their utility bills. And because of her involvement with the program, Lewis learned in January that her past-due balances from 2021 would be forgiven.

"I didn't see that coming, I didn't know they did that," Lewis told New Jersey 101.5.

NJ utilities could shut off customers

About 275,000 PSE&G customers are at risk because they're behind on their bills and haven't signed up for payment assistance.

Of the 96,600 Atlantic City Electric customers who were behind on their energy bill through last month, fewer than 15,000 have established payment arrangements.

At the end of January 2022, JCP&L recorded 93,241 residential customers who were at least 30 days overdue.

Trenton resident Michelle Lewis
Trenton resident Michelle Lewis
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Many utility companies in New Jersey have technically had the green light to shut off service for non-paying customers since the beginning of the year, but they've been keeping the lights on and the gas flowing for residences since then, falling in line with the state's Winter Termination Program that blocks certain customers from having their gas or electric turned off between Nov. 15 and Mar. 15 of each year.

South Jersey Gas said in late 2021 that its customers would not be at risk of discontinued service until the middle of March. PSE&G said Mar. 15 is the date it's pushing for customers to keep in mind.

"We want all of our customers to understand that if they're struggling to pay their bills, we're here to help," said PSE&G spokesperson Rebecca Mazzarella. "If you have an outstanding balance, you need to take action immediately to help protect your service from being disconnected after March 15."

"We never want to shut off any customer's utility service because of an inability to pay," Mazzarella said.

JCP&L has sent out more than 40,000 disconnection notices since the end of the shutoff moratorium that was prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. Through those notices, customers can sign up for a deferred payment plan, even if they're not eligible for an assistance program.

Along with the number of customers who are seriously behind on bills, income eligibility requirements for state programs have been expanded since the start of the pandemic. For example, a family of four can make up to $105,000 — more than double the previous limit of $48,000 — to be eligible for help.

Check here to see which program(s) you may be eligible for. Applications for this year are being accepted through June.

Nearly 36,000 Atlantic City Electric customers received $31.9 million in funding during the 2021 energy assistance program year, plus $5.4 million so far during the 2022 program year, which began on Oct. 1, the utility said.

All water, sewer, and municipal electric customers are protected from shutoff through Mar. 15.

Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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