By Tammerlin Drummond
Right before Thanksgiving, Andrea Sinclair got laid off from her job as an office assistant. In January and February, the San Jose resident said she got PG&E bills of $687.04 and $681.67, respectively, more than double what she’d ever paid.
“It just doesn’t make sense, Sinclair said. “We’re barely making it and now I don’t know how we’re going to survive.”
Sinclair is one of many PG&E customers throughout the Bay Area and the state outraged over unusually high winter bills. The utility raised consumer electric prices twice earlier this year on the heels of a 12 percent hike for gas that went into effect in August.
That’s on top of high housing costs, rising food prices and gasoline once again creeping upward.
Julie Reynolds’ January PG&E bill was $584 for her 1,000-square-foot Oakland apartment — about one-third what she pays for rent. February it was $489. Her highest bill had been $300.
“It’s really killing my budget,” said Reynolds, who works as a representative renewing online memberships. “I used to be able to save a couple of hundred dollars a month, but now I’m not saving anything for a rainy day. I have to get my car smog checked and I’m afraid of some bad situation where I’ll have to get something fixed.”
A 21 percent increase in gas charges from December 2015 to December 2016 was a major cause for higher bills, according to Brandi Merlo, a PG&E spokeswoman. She said that, combined with damp and colder days this winter, fueled high heating bills.
“We know that higher than expected bills are frustrating and no one likes surprises when it comes to their bills,” Merlo said.
She advised customers to go online to their PG&E account to monitor energy usage, and review whether they are using the best rate plan for their household. While there they can learn about energy saving tips and find out whether they qualify for a low income discount program.
Sinclair got a low-income discount in January and February that reduced her bill $77 each month. She still owes nearly $1,400. She signed up for a $120 per month payment plan for 12 months to avoid getting her utilities shut off. Sinclair and her partner live with their combined four children and her daughter’s boyfriend. Her son wasn’t living with them last year, but she said one more person doesn’t explain the hefty increase.
She said PG&E blamed the huge bill on the family’s use of space heaters.
“So now we’re wearing sweats, sweatshirts and socks and my daughter is wearing gloves to bed,” Sinclair said. “We’re also taking the laundry to the laundromat to cut costs.”