COVID -19 changes: utilities, telcos and rates

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is a challenging time for everyone in Australia (and the world). This is a guide to the changes applying to utility providers (electricity, gas and water companies), telecommunications companies as well as Council rates to assist people that are financially impacted by the pandemic.

This page is about steps you can take to look after yourself and your family financially during the COVID-19 pandemic

Information on this page:
Please click the links below to visit each section

Three changes you need to know about

  1. In April 2020, the National Cabinet (Heads of the Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments) issued a set of principles about hardship support for people who may have trouble paying their energy, water and rates bills due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  2. From 1 July 2021, the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) has introduced a Standby Statement of Expectations. This sets out how the AER expects energy retailers to behave for people struggling with an energy bill and provides various protections. It applies in areas that are subject to lockdowns or extended periods of restricted movement.
  3. Telecommunication providers have developed a set of hardship principles that includes financial hardship assistance and not disconnecting people in repayment arrangements.

What do the changes mean?

It means that if you are struggling, you need to contact your energy, water, telecommunications provider or local Council early to discuss your financial hardship and make a repayment arrangement you can afford.

The changes in detail

Energy

The Australian Energy Regulator (AER) has introduced a new Standby Statement of Expectations from 1 July 2021 in the event jurisdictions are subject to lockdowns or extended periods of restricted movement.

The Standby Statement sets out three principles that energy businesses will be expected to apply to protect customers financially impacted during periods of lockdowns and restricted movement orders. These principles are that an energy business will:

  1. Offer all residential and small business customers who indicate they may be in financial stress a payment plan or hardship arrangement.

  2. Not disconnect any residential or small business customer who may be in financial stress without their agreement.

  3. Defer referrals of residential and small business customers to debt collection agencies for debt recovery action, or credit default listing.

There is an expectation that customers who can pay their energy bills will continue to do so.

Types of assistance available

Energy providers must work with their customers, who are in financial difficulty, to offer assistance and set up a payment plan that works for them.  This can include:

  • Payment extensions: This may be suitable if you have a cashflow issue. You will get an extension of time, usually up to a month, to pay your bill.
  • Short term payment plans: if you have a bill due and can’t pay it in full then your provider can assist you to make an arrangement to pay it over a number of equal repayments before your next bill becomes due.
  • Long term payment plans: if you have an outstanding bill your provider can offer arrangements for you to repay it by instalments each week or fortnight. The instalment amount covers both the amount owing and an estimate for how much energy you will use each week. This type of payment plan usually covers multiple billing periods.
  • Individualised support: if you need more intensive support then your provider should work with you to develop a tailored payment plan that suits your needs. This can include a long term payment plan and other support measures to reduce energy costs, incentivise payment, or help replacing energy inefficient appliances.
  • Government assistance: Most state governments offer emergency relief for customers in hardship. If you are eligible for this assistance, it usually means a one-off payment, paid directly to your utility provider, to help reduce your bills. For example, in Victoria, the Utility Relief Grant provides a maximum payment of $650 every two-year period for each utility. For example, in NSW, the Energy Accounts Payment Assistance Scheme provides a maximum payment of $800 every 12 month period for each utility.

 

What you need to do

  • Call your provider and talk to them about what assistance they can offer you
  • Check that you are on the right energy plan or if there is a better plan for you
  • Check that you are receiving all concessions, rebates and other bill support you may be eligible for
  • Choose the type of assistance and payment plan that best suits your needs
  • Only agree to a repayment amount you can afford
  • Tell your energy provider if you need your energy as a priority
  • Always ask for late fees or penalties not to be charged
  • If your energy provider will not help, or will not negotiate a payment plan that you can afford, mention the AER Standby Statement of Expectations and if you still get no help, consider lodging a dispute in the free dispute resolution scheme in your State or Territory. See Complaints and Disputes.

 

Water

The National Cabinet (Heads of the Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments) agreed to a nationally consistent approach to hardship support across essential services, including water, for household and small business customers. Some of these principles included:

  • Offering flexible payment options to all households and small businesses in financial distress
  • Not disconnecting or restricting supply to those in financial stress
  • Deferring debt recovery proceedings and credit default listings
  • Waiving late fees and interest charges on debt

Your water provider may also offer further assistance.

There is an expectation that customers who can pay their water bills will continue to do so.


What you need to do

  • Call your water provider and talk to them about what assistance they can offer you
  • Always ask for fees or interest not to be charged
  • Check what water bill assistance may be available from your water provider or from your state or territory government
  • Choose the type of assistance that best meets your needs and make a repayment arrangement you can afford
  • If your water provider will not help, mention the National Cabinet principles and if you still get no help, consider lodging a dispute in the free dispute resolution scheme in your State or Territory. See Complaints and Disputes.

For further information about how to get your electricity, gas and water bills under control see Electricity, Gas and Water Bills.

 

Rates

The National Cabinet (Heads of the Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments) agreed to a nationally consistent approach to hardship support across essential services, including council rates, for household and small business customers. Some of these principles included:

  • Offering flexible payment options to all households in financial distress
  • Deferring debt recovery proceedings and credit default listings
  • Waiving late fees and interest charges on debt

Your Council may also offer further hardship assistance.

There is an expectation that customers who can pay their rates bills will continue to do so.


What you need to do

  • Call your Council and talk to them about what assistance they can offer you
  • Always ask for fees or interest not to be charged
  • Choose the type of assistance that best meets your needs and make a repayment arrangement you can afford
  • Ask if they will write off or reduce interest already accrued if you comply with your payment arrangement.

 

Telecommunications (phone, internet)

Early in the pandemic the telecommunications industry released a set of hardship principles.  These have now been extended until 30 September 2021.  These hardship principles include:

  • Financial hardship assistance including telcos being prepared to waive late fees, interest charges, collection charges and flexibility with modifying existing financial hardship plans if the person’s circumstances have changed
  • Not disconnecting people in agreed financial hardship agreements without their consent
  • Not referring people in an agreed payment plan to a debt collection agency
  • Acknowledging the need to ensure everyone, including vulnerable people, remain connected
  • Priority given to connections, service restoration, repairs and prioritising connection for those who need it most, such as Priority Assist customers

Your telecommunications provider may also offer further assistance.


What you need to do

  • Call and make a repayment arrangement you can afford
  • Change your plan to one you can afford or move to prepaid. Ask for cancellation fees not to be charged.
  • Always ask for fees or interest not to be charged
  • If your telecommunications provider will not help, mention the joint statement and if you still get no help, consider lodging a dispute in the free Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, which is a dispute resolution body.

For further information about how to get your phone and internet bills under control see Phone and Internet Bills.

State and Territory Government Assistance

It is worth keeping up to date with financial assistance measures that may be available to support individuals, households and small businesses in your state or territory.  Click on the relevant link below to find out more.

Australian Capital Territory

Details on assistance available can be accessed by calling the ACT Government COVID-19 helpline on 02 6207 7244 or at ACT Government COVID-19 Support

New South Wales

Details of assistance available can be accessed by calling Service NSW on 137 788 or at NSW Government COVID-19 2021 Support

Northern Territory

Details on assistance available can be accessed by calling the NT COVID-19 hotline 1800 490 484 or at NT Government COVID-19 Wellbeing Support

Queensland

Details of assistance available can be accessed at QLD Government COVID-19 Support

South Australia

Details of assistance available can be accessed by calling SA COVID-19 Information line on 1800 253 787 or at SA Government COVID-19 Support

Tasmania

Details of assistance available can be accessed by calling the Tasmanian Public Health Hotline on 1800 671 738 or at Tasmanian Government COVID-19 Financial Services and Support

Victoria

Details of assistance available can be accessed at Service Victoria COVID-19

Western Australia

Details of assistance available can be accessed at WA Government – Coronavirus COVID-19

Speak to one of our financial counsellors

If your problem still hasn’t been solved, or you’re feeling overwhelmed, call us on 1800 007 007 to speak with one of our financial counsellors.

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