Many COVID Enhancements to NJ’s Gas and Electric Assistance Programs Are Now Permanent, and New Shut-Off Protections Are In Place
New Jersey expanded its assistance programs for gas and electric customers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of these improvements have now been adopted on a permanent basis. Unfortunately, a new program to assist with water bills during the pandemic, called LIHWAP, has ended, and at this point has not been renewed. At the same time, many water customers are now protected from shut-off during the winter months, as Winter Moratorium protections are now in place for customers of all water utilities in New Jersey.
This article will review the utility assistance programs that are currently in place in New Jersey and provide information about the application process.
Electric and Gas Assistance Programs
The Universal Service Fund (USF) and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) are two programs that work together to provide assistance with heating and cooling costs. There is a single application system for the USF and LIHEAP programs. Another program, called Lifeline, can also provide assistance with energy bills to seniors and people with disabilities.
How to Apply for USF and LIHEAP
You can apply for USF and LIHEAP online directly through the USF/LIHEAP Online Application Portal. You can also apply through a USF/LIHEAP application agency in your area. If you need help finding an agency that accepts applications, call 1-800-510-3102. You can also get a copy of the USF/LIHEAP application form on the NJ Department of Community Affairs (DCA) website.
Unless you are automatically enrolled from another program, you need to file a USF/LIHEAP recertification each year, even if you received benefits before.
Some applicants for food stamps, Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Aged, Blind and Disabled (PAAD), Lifeline Energy Assistance, and Medicare Part D are automatically screened for USF benefits and/or enrolled in LIHEAP and do not have to fill out a separate USF/LIHEAP application. In general, this is done for applicants who are eligible for the other program, who pay for heat, and who live in a household that includes only members who are considered in determining eligibility for both programs. If you are not sure whether you have been considered for USF and LIHEAP benefits, call the USF/LIHEAP program information number above to find out whether you should submit a USF/LIHEAP application.
Universal Service Fund (USF)
USF provides two key types of benefits: (1) a monthly USF credit on your bill; and (2) Fresh Start arrearage forgiveness.
Both of these types of USF benefits were expanded during the COVID pandemic, and some of the expansions have now become permanent:
If your monthly gross income is at or below the levels in this USF/LIHEAP chart, you should be eligible for USF and/or LIHEAP assisstance.
|Household Size||USF/LIHEAP Income Limit|
|For each additional person||add $213|
How does the USF monthly credit work?
USF assistance reduces your utility bill every month. Each customer receiving USF assistance gets a monthly credit. The credit is based on an estimate of the amount of energy the household will use in the next year. Usually, this estimate reflects past energy use at the same property.
All eligible customers will get a monthly credit on their utility bills of at least $5. You will get a larger monthly credit, up to $180 per month, if your expected utility costs over the next year will be:
Your utility company will subtract the amount of your USF credit from your utility bill each month. It’s that simple!
If you have past-due electric or gas bills over $60, you may also qualify for arrearage forgiveness. This part of the program is called Fresh Start. USF will forgive your outstanding balance if you keep up with your current monthly bills for one year after you begin to receive a USF credit under the expanded program.
If you are eligible, you should be placed in the Fresh Start program automatically. Your utility company cannot disconnect your service for nonpayment of overdue bills that are part of the Fresh Start program.
If you miss monthly payments during the year you are on Fresh Start, your utility company should send you reminder letters. This will give you a chance to catch up. You will have three more months after the end of the initial 12-month period to make up any missed payments. Thus, each eligible customer gets a 12-month period (with a three-month grace period after the end) in which to get rid of overdue bills.
Will my utility bills be the same each month on USF?
Only if you are on your utility company’s budget billing plan. Then, the utility company will charge you a flat amount each month, based on its estimate of your household’s annual usage, less your monthly USF credit.
But, there may still be surprises. Your actual gas or electric usage will probably turn out to be different from the amount the utility estimated. If that is the case, your bill will be adjusted to reflect the difference. This process of “truing up” should take place at least once every six months.
The beginning of the heating season can be a good time to get on a budget billing plan, because the budget billing plan will spread some heating costs into the following summer. There is no effect on LIHEAP or USF eligibility or benefits.
If you do not join your utility’s budget billing plan, your bill will vary from month to month. It will reflect the amount of your utility use each month, less your USF credit.
The good news is that either way, if you use less energy, you will have to pay less. But you will have to pay more if you use more energy than estimated.
Weatherization: One thing that you can do to keep costs down is to contact your local weatherization program office to find out if you are eligible for free improvements to your home. For more information about applying for weatherization assistance, contact the state USF/LIHEAP hotline at 1-800-510-3102, or contact the LSNJLAWSM at www.lsnjlawhotline.org or 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529).
Are there any other limits on USF benefits?
There are two other limits to the amount of a recipient’s USF credit. One limit is that the largest credit a customer can receive is $180 each month, or $2,160 each year. The other is that all customers must pay at least $8 per month, even if that is more than 4% of their income.
If one of these limits causes a hardship for you, call the Board of Public Utilities, Division of Customer Assistance, at 1-800-624-0241, and contact the LSNJLAWSM Hotline at www.lsnjlawhotline.org or 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529). There may be additional sources of assistance that can help, and it is important to let the board know that these limits can cause hardships.
The LIHEAP Program
The Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) provides an annual heating assistance grant during the heating season and, in some cases, other one-time grants. The income eligibility limits for the LIHEAP program are the same as those for USF—60% of New Jersey’s state median income. The LIHEAP eligibility limits are shown in the above chart.
Who is eligible for LIHEAP?
LIHEAP covers more households than USF. You can be eligible for LIHEAP:
To be eligible for LIHEAP benefits, you must be responsible for home heating or cooling costs. This means either that you pay utility bills yourself, or that your utilities are included in the rent. You must also have gross income below 60% of the state median income (see above for monthly income guidelines). While almost all income received by anyone in the household is counted, some is not. For example, most income received by a full-time student is not counted. Also excluded are payments received from SNAP (food stamps), or from other energy assistance programs, such as Lifeline.
How do LIHEAP benefits work?
LIHEAP provides single-payment grants to help with energy costs. The amount of the basic LIHEAP heating benefit varies from about $100 to more than $1,000, based on income, household size, fuel type, and heating region. Benefits are highest for homeowners with electric heat, or who heat with oil, propane, wood, and other “deliverable” fuels. See the LIHEAP Benefit Grid (from the NJ Department of Community Affairs) for a chart of LIHEAP benefit levels. This site also has links to the USF/LIHEAP application form, contact information for intake agencies, and other information about New Jersey energy assistance programs.
How are LIHEAP benefits paid?
If your home is heated with natural gas or electricity, you may have your LIHEAP payment sent directly to the utility company. Otherwise, in most cases, a two-party check (made out to you and to your fuel supplier) will be sent to you. If your heat is included in the rent, the check will be made out directly to you.
I live in public housing. Can I still get LIHEAP assistance?
People who live in public housing and/or receive rental assistance are eligible for LIHEAP if they pay their own utility costs directly to the utility company.
LIHEAP Emergency Crisis and Medically Necessary Cooling Assistance
LIHEAP can sometimes provide additional emergency assistance if you have no heat or are in danger of losing your heat, and don’t have enough money to solve the problem yourself. You may be able to get help with an emergency fuel delivery or have utility service restored. If you are a homeowner, you may be able to get emergency help to fix your furnace. A tenant who pays for utilities can get assistance for emergency help to restart a furnace. In some energy-related emergencies, LIHEAP can even provide temporary shelter or help in preventing an eviction.
An eligible household that shows a medical need can also receive an additional LIHEAP grant to help with summer cooling costs.
For more information about USF and LIHEAP, call 1-866-240-1347, visit Energy Assistance (from the NJ Department of Community Affairs), or contact the LSNJLAWSM Hotline at www.lsnjlawhotline.org or 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529).
Lifeline Energy Assistance Program
Lifeline refers to three different state programs for seniors and people with disabilities:
How does Lifeline work?
You can be eligible for the Lifeline Credit Program or Tenants’ Lifeline Assistance Program if you are a residential electric or gas customer or a tenant with utilities included in the rent, and are in one of the following categories:
The Lifeline Credit Program makes a one-time payment, currently $225, on a yearly basis toward an eligible customer’s gas and electric bill. If you receive service from two different utility companies, then the benefit is split between the two.
The Tenants’ Lifeline Assistance Program provides a $225 check to tenants who have gas and electric costs included in the rent.
The Special Utility Supplement is for SSI recipients who are not eligible for Lifeline Credit or Tenants’ Lifeline Assistance. The yearly supplement is divided into monthly installments and is added to the recipient’s SSI check. The current supplement is $18.25 per month.
How do I apply for Lifeline?
People applying for PAAD also apply for a Lifeline benefit by answering the questions that pertain to Lifeline programs.
Beneficiaries of Medical Assistance to the Aged (MAA), Medical Assistance Only (MAO), or New Jersey Care are sent Lifeline applications automatically every August.
Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients do not need to file an application for Lifeline. The Lifeline benefit is automatically included in your monthly SSI payment.
For more information about Lifeline, call 1-800-792-9745, visit Lifeline (from the NJ Department of Human Services), or contact the LSNJLAWSM Hotline at www.lsnjlawhotline.org or 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529).
Other Sources of Energy Assistance
Two additional programs are providing an expanded range of utility assistance programs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They both provide financial assistance to eligible utility customers when funds are available in the programs they administer and can help customers to complete applications.
Water Assistance Programs
Unfortunately, New Jersey’s water assistance programs are currently quite limited. That means for many low- and middle-income households with water arrears, the best plan may be to apply for USF and LIHEAP assistance (described above) to address gas and electric payment and arrears issues, in order to be able to devote scarce funds to pay down existing water arrears that can’t be addressed through available water assistance programs.
Here’s where things stand with respect to water assistance:
Winter Termination Protections
Protections against utility service terminations are in place for many customers during the winter months. They are commonly referred to as the Winter Moratorium. A new law has extended Winter Moratorium protections to apply to all New Jersey water utilities, in addition to all gas and electric utilities.
How the Winter Moratorium Works
Between November 15 and March 15 each year, covered utility service to customers in either of the following categories cannot be shut off for nonpayment – and in some circumstances, if service is already disconnected, it must be reconnected.
The Winter Moratorium protects customers in the following groups:
You should be sure to tell your utility provider if you may be eligible for the Winter Moratorium, since some utility providers may not know which of their customers qualify.
In addition, some additional shut-off protections are in place for customers of utility companies other than municipal utility companies providing service within their municipal boundaries:
Extreme weather protections—shut-offs are prohibited on days that are very cold (forecast temperature below 32° all day), and also on days that are very hot (forecast temperature 90° or higher).
In-person contact—a utility representative must attempt to give you in-person notice, and provide an opportunity for you to give them information about special circumstances or to make payment arrangements, before water service can be shut off.
Higher shutoff threshold—a customer must be at least $200 behind or at least 3 months past due on their water bill before service can be shut off.
Life-sustaining equipment—utility companies must ask customers at least four times a year whether there they have any life-sustaining equipment that would be impacted by a water shut-off.
This information last reviewed: Oct 30, 2023