A group of green-shirted environmental activists scrawled a message in chalk Monday morning on the street in front of the Gloucester County home of PECO’s CEO.
“Prayers for the dying. Bill forgiveness now.”
Earth Quaker Action Team, an organization that has battled PECO for years, is pushing the electric company to waive outstanding payments for customers during the coronavirus pandemic.
Many are struggling from the economic toll of the virus and won’t be able to pay off mounting bills even when Philadelphia emerges from COVID-19, said Montgomery Ogden, a member of EQAT, pronounced as “equate.”
“It’s going to be a huge lift for these families, a huge, huge lift,” he said. “This pandemic has disproportionately affected the most vulnerable citizens in our country.”
The group is also calling on PECO to develop a plan to switch to using 20 percent solar energy from local sources over the next five years, which organizers say would create jobs for Philadelphians.
EQAT, a Quaker group that practices “nonviolent direct action,” held rallies at the same time Monday in front of PECO CEO Michael Innocenzo’s house in South Harrison Township, New Jersey, and company Senior Vice President Liz Murphy’s home in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania.
In a statement, PECO noted that it has suspended service disconnections until further notice due to the pandemic. It has also been waiving new late fees and reconnecting customers who had previously been shut off.
The company said it has launched an initiative that allows customers to pay outstanding bills over time. PECO said it has also made it easier for newly unemployed people to sign up for programs for low-income residents.
Anyone having difficulty paying their electric bill can call 1-888-480-1533, PECO said.
“We understand that many customers are facing financial hardships at this time, and that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have disproportionally affected our most vulnerable communities,” the company said in an emailed statement.
Ogden called the shut-off moratorium “the bare minimum” and said bill forgiveness would be a more permanent solution.
About 128,000 PECO customers are late on their bills, which EQAT said is far higher than normal. The company is the largest electric utility in Pennsylvania, covering Philadelphia, Delaware and most of Bucks, Montgomery and Chester counties.
PECO said it is working to increase its use of solar energy but said EQAT’s proposal would be unaffordable and unfeasible.
Moving to 20 percent solar by 2025 would result in a $1,300 annual increase for ratepayers and require more residential rooftop space than exists in Philadelphia, according to PECO.
EQAT has been pushing PECO to incorporate more solar for the past five years.
The Quaker organization gained some notoriety for being part of a successful multi-year effort in 2015 to get PNC Bank to stop investing in mountaintop coal removal, a method that has been criticized by environmentalists.
“Our job is to be a pain in the butt in some way, with love and constantly calling attention to justice,” Ogden said.
Last summer, three members of the group were arrested after unfurling a banner from the roof of PECO’s Center City headquarters, according to KYW.
No one was arrested Monday, but a Woolwich Township police officer indicated the Innocenzo family could file a harassment claim against the protesters.
EQAT members showed up to the house just after 9:30 a.m., but it appeared to be empty. A neighbor said a close family member was dying of cancer and told the demonstrators to “have some respect.”
Not long after, Police Officer Matt Boyko and a man who protesters said is a member of PECO’s security team showed up.
Boyko, who took time to discuss the issues with EQAT members, told them the chalk messages were “illegal markings” in the street which could confuse or distract drivers.
The rally lasted a little over an hour, and ended with participants forming a circle and singing “Wade in the Water” and “Amazing Grace.”
“It is our job to advocate for communities who are already doing a tremendous amount to survive and live with dignity, but they can’t breathe in so many instances and PECO is part of that,” Ogden said.