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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, water utilities step up to support customers doing it tough

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to put pressure on the Australian economy, water utilities are stepping up to assist customers and communities experiencing financial hardship.

While water businesses have begun to implement significant operational changes to ensure staff safety, including remote working arrangements and reducing staff contact, utilities are also focusing on the challenges facing their customers.

Australia currently has 6612 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and 70 people have died. Queensland accounts for 1019 of these cases, the third-highest number of infections behind New South Wales and Victoria.

Unitywater services almost 17% of the state’s population, and Executive Manager – People, Culture and Safety Kenan Hibberd said the utility’s primary concern was keeping staff safe to ensure the provision of our most essential resource. 

However, following this, Hibberd said the next priority was supporting customers with changes to debt recovery and the introduction of financial hardship packages.

“The economy went into shutdown so quickly; a lot of people lost their jobs, or their businesses had to be shut,” he said.

“We are starting to see a very clear trend of hardship issues coming through from customers.

“We are putting in place arrangements to try and support customers who have got employment or income issues during this difficult time that we are all in.”

Unitywater’s response has thus far included a customer relief package, as well as a range of changes to billing policy.

“To begin with, we have stopped all service restrictions for people who fall into the financial hardship category. We know how important it is to have access to water right now,” Hibberd said.

“Unitywater is also giving customers more time to pay bills. Over the next six months, we're extending our accounts from 30 to 60 days. 

“And we will not be charging interest on overdue bills either. We are currently working on a second round of assistance, which will include community and sporting groups.”

Unitywater Chairman Jim Soorley said these changes supplemented the Queensland Government’s relief package, which is giving households money to help with bills.

"The Queensland Government’s $200 credit is designed to alleviate electricity and water bills,” he said.

The government in Western Australia has also put a focus on water bills, deciding to freeze water rate increases until at least 1 July 2021.

Tailored support

At Melbourne’s Yarra Valley Water (YVW), Managing Director Pat McCafferty said the utility is focusing on ensuring support is tailored to the needs of its customers, including providing extensions on bill payments for households and businesses.

We are experiencing a significant rise in calls from people seeking support, and we are responding to the issues we’re hearing from our customers to ensure that our support options are relevant and meet the needs of this situation,” he said. 

This support also covers people experiencing family violence, who may be in a difficult situation due a partner or family member. 

“As an essential service provider we have an important role to play, and we note the advice from family violence experts that there is likely to be an increase in family violence cases due to forced isolation and heightened stress levels,” McCafferty said.

Hunter Water Acting CEO Darren Cleary said customers who need assistance are encouraged to make the most of the utility’s support policy.

“We acknowledge our customers and community are also dealing with the economic impacts of this crisis, and we want to do what we can to alleviate any bill stress they may be experiencing,” he said

“We can place an extension on accounts, with interest free payment relief available for residents and businesses who are doing it tough as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

“There is also support available for tenants to offset their water usage costs in the form of payment assistance credits. Additionally, we won’t restrict the water supply of any customers who can’t pay their bills during this time, given the importance of access to water.”

Aside from following the direction of state governments and the National Cabinet, water utilities have also turned to the Water Services Association of Australia's (WSAA) technical documents, which provide guidelines on COVID-19 responses.

WSAA Executive Director Adam Lovell encouraged the broader water sector to ensure key protections are put in place for customers experiencing financial hardship.

"Today the urban water industry is acknowledging that in these unprecedented times many households and businesses are experiencing financial uncertainty," he said

"Water and wastewater services are critical for a healthy community and as an industry we are ensuring these services will continue – including to anyone experiencing hardship at this time.”