Sarah is a single mother with three children aged three, two and eight months living in public housing in regional NSW. Sarah had her electricity disconnected twice in 2012: the first time for five hours and the second time for a day.
Immediate causes of disconnection
Prior to disconnection, Sarah* was on a bill smoothing plan.
Under this plan, Sarah paid $60 a month to cover an outstanding bill.
‘I was stressing the two young ones didn’t understand, the older one wanted to watch cartoons It was so hard to explain.’
Sarah had not paid off her bill when she received a second bill. The cost of paying both of these bills proved difficult. She called her electricity company to discuss the bill smoothing plan, and found out that her electricity company had changed her bill smoothing plan to an instalment plan.
Although retailers sometimes differ in their payment assistance options, usually under a bill smoothing plan a consumer pays a certain amount in instalments to cover consumption and arrears.
Under an instalment plan, a consumer usually pays arrears only and still receives a bill for current energy use. Sarah was disconnected because she could not meet the repayments under the instalment plan and her bill for current usage.
Sarah reported that her electricity company did not provide her with a disconnection notice prior to disconnecting her electricity.
Discovering the disconnection
Upon discovering the disconnection, what upset Sarah the most was telling her children. The two youngest children could not understand what had happened. Sarah was unable to boil water to make formula for her youngest child. She had to boil water at her neighbour’s house in order to do so.
Sarah was experiencing financial hardship at the time of disconnection. She said she had little money left after paying rent each week, and her family was unable to help out financially.
Sarah’s initial response was to contact the electricity company to find out why she had been disconnected.
She said she found it difficult to understand the English spoken by the person taking the call, which made communication problematic. She also said she had to call the electricity company five times in order to get some assistance. After being told that she would have to pay $250 to be reconnected, she rang her mother who told her to come to her house straight away, but was not in a position to help financially.
‘I rang my mum but she didn’t have $250 I tried another organisation but they didn’t help. I then tried the local community centre and they said to print off the bill and come down to see them.’
Sarah received financial assistance through a community centre to the amount of $235 and was able to pay the remaining $15 in order to be reconnected. Sarah was aware of the community centre because she had been there previously for food supplies.
Sarah described disconnection as ‘stressful’ and ‘frustrating’.
She was unable to provide food for her children, and she had to rely on other people (neighbours, family and the community centre) to support her and help her out financially. Sarah had done her grocery shopping just before she was cut-off and had to throw out $200 worth of groceries. She only had $4 left in her account at the time of disconnection, which she used to buy a loaf of bread.
Coping mechanisms and getting help
After the disconnection, Sarah went to her mother’s house. It was a very hot day and she had to take her three children to her mother’s house by bus which was difficult.
Sarah said the local community centre was very supportive. The community centre provided Sarah with financial assistance to pay the bill, which she would otherwise not have been able to pay. The community centre still keeps in contact with Sarah to see how she is going.
Although the disconnection experience was some weeks ago, Sarah still found the experience stressful to talk about and said that she would not want to go through it again.
As a result of the experience, and in particular the poor service she said she received from her electricity company, Sarah has changed her electricity provider.
* Names have been changed to protect participants’ privacy.