01.Payment difficulties with utilities
For anyone who’s ever had trouble coming up with the funds to pay their utility bill, and perhaps even faced disconnection, there are some important rights you should know about.
All utility users have certain rights to assistance when facing trouble paying their bills. The level of assistance you may be eligible for varies slightly for energy and water as well as for the states and territories.
Depending on your situation there are usually several kinds of assistance available:
- payment plans which offer the ability to pay off your debt in instalments;
- entering onto a retailer’s financial hardship program;
- various rebates and concessions which differ around the country;
- speaking to a financial counsellor free of charge; and
- getting advice on how to reduce your energy usage.
Read more on your specific rights in relation to energy
What is financial hardship?
Payment difficulty or financial hardship is generally defined as someone who wants to pay their bill but doesn’t have the capacity to do so within the retailer’s time frame.
It often only takes one small thing to put someone into financial hardship, says Stella Avramopoulos, the CEO of Kildonan UnitingCare. With the increase in utility prices, there’s been a rise in people who are in paid employment entering retailers’ customer hardship programs. As a result, many people experiencing problems paying utility bills don’t know how to navigate the welfare system. While those in paid in employment may not qualify for all the government concessions, they could be accepted into various hardship programs, she says.
What assistance you receive through the retailer will depend on your situation, but as a minimum, utility retailers are generally obliged to offer you extra time to pay through a payment plan if you’ve told them you’re having difficulty paying. Provided you make the required repayments you can’t be disconnected.
You may also be considered eligible for a retailer’s hardship program but eligibility depends on your retailer. Being on the hardship program may offer other benefits such as the waiver of late payment fees, energy efficiency advice and referrals to government concessions. All electricity and gas providers have financial hardship policies in place outlining how they will assist customers experiencing financial difficulty and many water retailers also have financial hardship programs.
There are various government and state-based concessions available. ASIC provides a list of concessions
available for energy and water in each state and territory. Free financial counsellors
can assist you in applying for these vouchers as can customer hardship officers at your utility retailer.