"At the commission, even before the COVID-19 public health emergency came about, we already knew that affordability was an issue raised by many, and that concerned us."

- Sadzi Oliva, Illinois Commerce Commission

Commissioner Sadzi Oliva from the Illinois Commerce Commission speaks with Zpryme about the ICC’s actions, orders, and response to the covid-19 outbreak and discusses how Illinois utilities are responding to serve and help the most vulnerable customers and community during a time of crisis.

*Due to sound issues in the video recording we have put the full transcript of the interview below.

Commissioner Sadzia Oliva April 2, 2020 Online Interview Transcript

Jason Rodriguez:

Hi everyone, this is Jason Rodriguez here with Zpryme. Today I’m joined by Commissioner Sadzi Oliva from the Illinois Commerce Commission. Today we’re going to learn a little bit more about the ICC’s response to the COVID- 19 outbreak. Sadzi, if you could maybe just start us off with a little bit of background of some of the actions the ICC has taken in response to the coronavirus and maybe talk a little bit about some of the utility actions that have been taken in response to COVID-19 .

Sadzi Oliva:

Sure. The Illinois Commerce Commission has responded to the COVID-19 outbreak, I would say, pretty seamlessly. Thankfully, our employees were able to work remotely immediately after Governor Pritzker declared a public health emergency and issued a stay at home order. Our chairman, Carrie Zalewski, announced that the Commerce Commission would continue to operate during the COVID-19 public health emergency while taking precautionary measures to protect the health and safety of the public and its employees so there really was no disruption to the day-to-day operations of the commission.

I have to give a big thank you to the leadership of our Chairman, Carrie Zalewski, and to our interim Executive Director, Jim Zolnierek, and our General Council, Phil Kosanovich. They worked 24/7 to recommend steps that were immediately put into place to ensure that legally and procedurally we can keep running our staff. I was able to work remotely right away with our computer system and our database so quickly there was no interruption to our day-to-day work.

The first and most significant orders that issued were were those affecting public health and safety and I’ll talk a little bit about those. At the request of Governor Pritzker and the Illinois Attorney General, Kwame Raoul, the commission issued an emergency moratorium on shutoffs for all utility companies across the state. Those included Illinois investor owned utilities, municipal cooperatives, and water companies. As a result, all gas, electric distribution, water, and sewer utilities were ordered and directed to cease disconnections for non payment, to suspend the imposition of late payments or late payment fees and penalties on an interim basis.

Another step the commission took was issuing and ordering a moratorium on in person solicitations of customers by alternative retail collector suppliers and alternative retail gas suppliers. The commission also created a website dedicated to COVID-19 related notices including the emergency orders that resulted from the health emergency and information on how customers can reach out to us and contact us and still file complaints throughout of this stay-at-home order.

As far as the utilities go, again, they’ve been in contact with us non-stop. They’ve been having routine calls with our interim executive director, and they’ve all reported that the number one priority is safety, the safety of their employees, and the safety of the customers that they interact with. They all put in place social distancing practices for their employees on the field and most of them have been able to stay up and running with their business by having most of their staff telecommute and work remotely.

A lot of the utilities have reported very interesting and really good stories and lessons learned out of everything that’s happened and everything that happened so quickly. For example, Ameren, Illinois, which is our southern electric utility, they had already done emergency simulation drills so they were well prepared for crisis management. They put safety in precautions into place keeping linemen from working closely in a bucket truck by making them drive separate trucks or using personal vehicles, providing additional protective equipment, and cautioning customers who have been approached.

Illinois American Water, which is one of our water utilities, they suspended all non-emergency in home appointments. With personal hygiene being such an important way to avoid and prevent the spread of COVID-19, Illinois American Water has quickly responded to our order and suspended shutoffs and ceased disconnections for non-payment and stopped imposing late fees. Another thing that utility companies have done is to really step up to the plate. A lot of them have charitable contributions to relief efforts.

We have a great story from Ameren Cares. Ameren Corporation, through their charitable trust, is donating $500,000 for COVID-19 assistance both in Illinois and Missouri. Southern Company Gas, which is the parent company to our Nicor Gas Utility, same thing. They’ve invested 2.5 million this year to support COVID-19 relief efforts already in their states. They’re working with Meals on Wheels, The American Red Cross, Salvation Army, United Way, just to help the communities that are most impacted by this pandemic.

ComEd is making sure that all residential customers along their northern Illinois territory have access to electric service. Especially now with children staying at home, they need to have safe environments. Their customer care representatives are still available working with residents to help them identify bill payment options to retain service even when this pandemic is over. A lot of people are going to be economically impacted so utilities are aware and they really stepped up to making sure that this new reality that we’re living does not affect safe and reliable provision of utility services.

Jason Rodriguez:

Wow, thanks for explaining that so in depth. Maybe another question, I think, for our viewers. As 6.6 million people just filed for unemployment, can you maybe expand a little bit about some of the work being done to truly help the most vulnerable in the community there?

Sadzi Oliva:

I think that’s the most important thing. The charitable donations that some of our major investor or regional utilities are doing, how they’re working with the governor of Illinois to do this, and how they’re working in their communities, spreading the message. One of the things that a lot of them have told me about, that they’ve stepped up in getting involved with larger community outreach and taking their social responsibility efforts throughout the state.

One example that I heard was People’s Gas donated N-96 masks to doctors and nurses. Our utilities continue to closely look at formulating detailed response plans to support their partner organizations and those hardest hit by COVID-19. It’s really great to hear those stories and just how they’re taking this opportunity to spread awareness and work with their business and community partners to share best practices and information leading to relief efforts.
Ameren shared a story that they were able to share their storm response best practices in order to address some of those logistical challenges when it comes to meeting with staff and making sure that their staff has what they need during this crisis.

Jason Rodriguez:

Thank you for expanding on that. My last question is, maybe what are some of the opportunities both for the commission and utilities going forward that you guys see at this point in time?

Sadzi Oliva:

Going forward in the energy and the utility industry in terms of looking at how all of this is going to affect low income customers and those that are going to be impacted the most economically, is looking at ways to explore programs for low income customers in the context maybe of rate recovery for un-collectibles. That’s already available through electric and gas utilities. It’s not available for water utilities so companies such as Illinois American Water probably need to be exploring those programs.

At the commission, even before the COVID-19 public health emergency came about, we already knew that affordability was an issue raised by many, and that concerned us. It was raised by the Illinois attorney general’s office and other consumer advocate groups like the Citizens Utility Board. On March 23rd, we voted unanimously to initiate a notice of inquiry in order to examine and better assess the issue of energy affordability for all Illinois utility customers.

Through this process we will gather important information about the number of disconnections and reconnections under various certain consumer circumstances, what the credit and collection practices are of the utilities and how the utilities and other stakeholders define affordability and sole income so that we can make informed decisions looking going forward.

Jason Rodriguez:

All right, thank you. Thank you so much for your time. Appreciate you coming on, Sadzi, you have a great day. See you soon, stay healthy.

Sadzi Oliva:

Thank you so much for having me. It was nice seeing you and safe and stay healthy.