BOSTON — Unpaid utility bills are piling up in the aftermath of the coronavirus, with hundreds of thousands of homeowners and businesses in Massachusetts racking up record levels of debt, according to a new report.

The report, released Wednesday by the Boston-based National Consumer Law Center, found that the number residential, commercial and industrial customers who've fallen 90 days behind on their utility bills more than doubled from November 2019 to November 2020, with their collective debt now totaling more than $735 million.

The largest hole is widening beneath small business owners, whose debt grew 135% from $18 million to $41 million during that time period, according to the report.

Residential arrearages increased 80% from $194 million to $351 million, with the average customer owing at least $214.

"The level of debt has reached a crisis level," said Charlie Harak, a senior attorney at the law center and co-author of the report. "The pandemic has created a major burden on small business owners and residential customers who are unable to pay their energy bills, which is of grave concern."

Harak said the report's findings suggest the pandemic has created "a new class of struggling customers."

"These are the people who were previously able to pay their bills, but due to job losses and other factors during the pandemic are no longer able to make their payments," he said. "They've fallen into a debt hole and can't get out."

Last March, the state Department of Public Utilities issued an order banning electric, natural gas and water companies from disconnecting service during the state of emergency. The order included commercial and industrial utility customers, as well as small businesses, which fall behind on their bills because of the economic fallout.

Utilities are also prohibited from threatening to shut off gas, electric or water service to customers for failure to pay. They can be fined up to $1 million for violations.

The state regulatory agency reminded consumers to "make payments during the moratorium to avoid the accumulation of large arrearages."

Harak said utility companies have been largely abiding by those rules, and he's not aware of many people who have been disconnected during the pandemic.

Most utility companies have long-term payment plans and other options for residential customers who need help reducing their outstanding bills.

But hundreds of thousands of customers who are behind by 90 days or more will have to pay those unpaid debts after the ban expires on April 1, Harak said.

"The number of customers who are likely to find themselves facing shut off when the moratoriums ends is of great concern," he said.

The report recommends additional federal funding and changes in public policy to prevent consumers and businesses from "falling off a cliff" when the bills eventually become due.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com

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