Queenslanders who are having difficulty paying their energy bills should get in touch with their retailer to seek the protection they are legally entitled to.
Energy retailers are now obliged, since October 2019, to implement new customer hardship policies that must provide clearer and better assistance to customers who are unable to pay their bill. Hardship is the term used when someone finds it hard to pay their bills.
The Australian Energy Regulator’s (AER) Customer Hardship Policy Guideline now requires retailers to ensure hardship programs are easily accessible and they must include standard statements, which explain how they will help customers if they are unable to pay their bill.
The Guideline recognises that sometimes things happen in life that make it hard to pay your bills. It aims to ensure that you will be able to get the correct support and assistance you need at these times.
When a customer calls their energy retailer they can tell them they are having a tough time and need help paying their bills. The call centre staff may ask questions about the reasons why they cannot pay the bill.
When placing someone on the hardship program the energy retailer cannot make it a condition to see a financial counsellor or make payments up front.
Retailers usually have a special team to work with customers who are on the hardship program and they must:
- See if there is a better energy plan for them
- Give tips to save energy and money
- See if there are other ways to help – depending on the retailer this may include a home energy visit
- Talk about the right payment amount to suit the customer’s circumstances
- Let the customer know about government concessions, energy rebates and financial counselling services
- Advise about the Home Energy Emergency Assistance Scheme (HEEAS) if the customer’s income reduces and/or they have emergency once-off expenses such as moving home, medical, car or other essential item repairs
Customers on hardship programs cannot be disconnected for non-payment if they are meeting the conditions of the hardship program. An energy retailer cannot disconnect a customer for a debt of less than $300.
The Australian Energy Regulator has a number of good factsheets on energy consumers’ rights when they cannot pay a bill – these can be found here. QCOSS also has information and factsheets, including energy saving tips and advice on getting a better electricity deal.
It’s important for customers to know that they have rights when they cannot pay their bills.
If your client is not happy with how the energy retailer has helped them, you can call the Energy and Water Ombudsman for Queensland (EWOQ). They can be contacted by calling this free number 1800 662 837 or on its website.
QCOSS is keen to find out how well the energy retailers are implementing their new hardship policies based on the new guideline. QCOSS wants to monitor this and encourages financial counsellors, financial resilience/capability workers and other community workers to fill out this short survey if they experience, or know about, cases where the retailers are not doing the right thing.