The month of June has seen a striking heat wave, with temperatures reaching the high 90s in Louisiana. The National Weather Service issued excessive heat warnings over several days for New Orleans. Officials urged residents to stay indoors to avoid the severe health effects of prolonged heat exposure.
But staying inside offered little relief for some customers of Louisiana’s largest electrical utility. These consumers have been left without power and air-conditioning, some for days, when they tried to set up new service, change addresses, or change the name on their accounts. They were asked to wait for a call from the verification department as heat indexes crept near 120 degrees.
The process of verifying accounts should be relatively quick. But delays in Louisiana appear to have left some Entergy customers without power for days or longer, according to interviews with Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Davante Lewis, as well as an interview with one affected customer and recent complaints posted publicly online. (Two Verite employees also experienced extended outages this month as they waited on account verification).
The problem seems to have occurred after the company changed how it verifies the identities of account holders. In late May, Entergy moved the process — formerly managed by a third party — in-house.
It’s not clear how widespread the delays have been — whether they have affected customers throughout Entergy’s service areas, which include the most populous parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas, as well as a small part of Texas. Entergy has repeatedly declined to provide those details in response to questions from Verite.
But in an interview, Lewis, who represents an area that includes New Orleans and Baton Rouge for the statewide utility regulator, said he has been hearing from frustrated constituents and is planning to meet with company executives about it.
“I’m deeply concerned that people are without power, especially during the summertime in the heat, not because they didn’t pay their bill, not because of a system but because of some information that the utility company’s requesting,” Lewis said. “ You just have to wait. That to me is very troubling.”
Entergy Corp. confirmed to Verite that the company recently altered its process for new or changing accounts. Customer identities are now verified by Entergy employees rather than by a third-party service. Customers calling the company to set up new service, change addresses or change the name on their account have been told by customer service that they need to wait for a call from the verification department. However, according to Lewis, they have not been provided with a number to reach the verification department and have to instead wait to be contacted, even when their power has already been turned off.
“Only thing is I would add that I did talk with execs today and got a better understanding of the problem and that it is being corrected,” Lewis said late Friday (June 23).
“This transition gave us insights into the need for additional resources to effectively carry out this task,” the company said in an emailed statement. “As a result, we increased our personnel to address our customer verification cases resulting in a return to our standard service levels.”
Entergy declined to offer further information on the volume of customers waiting for verification, or on the personnel added to avoid further delays.
New Orleans city law and a general order from the Public Service Commission, which regulates Entergy Louisiana — the subsidiary that provides power outside of New Orleans — both say that utilities should not cut off electricity during periods of extreme heat. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns against the dangers of prolonged heat exposure, particularly for vulnerable populations such as the elderly, young children, and pregnant women, issues that the company has recently acknowledged in its public communications.
On June 16, while experiencing a backlog of verification complaints, Entergy New Orleans announced that it was suspending disconnects for non-payment and planned outages for maintenance, due to a heat advisory.
“With an advisory anticipated for the region through Tuesday, June 20, Entergy New Orleans will suspend customer disconnects during that time. Additionally, the company is halting any planned outages through Tuesday out of an abundance of caution for customer safety.”
On the official first day of summer, Wednesday, June 21, Entergy posted the following message on its Facebook page: “Our service areas often reach dangerously high temperatures this time of year,” advising customers to “drink plenty of fluids to help prevent heat-related illness.”
The New Orleans City Council serves as the regulator for Entergy New Orleans. Earlier this week, New Orleans City Councilman JP Morrell, who chairs the council utilities committee, wrote a letter to the company protesting a recent shutoff of a New Orleans family’s power due to an issue with their electrical meter.
“It scares me to think about others in this situation and the potentially deadly consequences. I am requesting information regarding this customer’s experience specifically and information regarding Entergy’s response to service disruptions during extreme weather conditions generally,” Morrell wrote.
But a staffer for Morrell said she was not aware whether his office had received any complaints about account verification problems. Morrell did not respond to an interview request by publication time.
‘Who does this to someone?’
But customers who say they have paid their bill, like a 73-year-old woman in Baton Rouge, who asked to be identified only by her last name, Smith. Smith said that having her power unexpectedly turned off during a heat advisory warning was shocking.
“I was in the recliner in front of the fan and the power went out,” she said. “Our cars were in the garage … and the garage door wouldn’t open. And I’m like, who does this to someone, just cut them off without any warning or anything?” Smith said she called Entergy two weeks before she moved into her new home, and was assured she would receive a call from the verification department.
Her power was cut off on Monday, June 19. She contacted Lewis, her representative on the Public Service Commission. On the same day, Lewis contacted Entergy and was able to have her power restored.
By the time Lewis heard from Smith, he was already aware of the problem. He said he first contacted Entergy regarding the issue 10 days earlier, on June 9, after receiving complaints.
Lewis said he is particularly concerned about the promise of customer service afforded by companies like Entergy, which maintains a monopoly on electrical service in its service areas across the South.
“I want to ensure that we have a system that is shaping consumers and also serving them well because that is part of the compact that we made for these companies to be a monopoly,” Lewis said. “Part of the reason we let you be able to play is you’re supposed to provide customer service and this is a deep concern of mine if customers are not being served correctly.”
Lewis said he is hoping to meet with executives from Entergy Louisiana next week to address his concerns.
The Louisiana Public Service Commission prohibits the suspension of services during times of extreme heat, under the Disconnection of Service for Electric and Gas Utilities general order, which states: “An electric utility shall not disconnect a customer in its service territory on a day when…The NWS issues a heat warning for any parish in the electric utilities service territory or when such warning has been issued on any one of the preceding calendar days.” Click here for LPSC district maps and contact information.
In New Orleans, a city law enumerating the rights of utility customers forbids the shut off of services “if the National Weather Service issues an Excessive Heat Warning for New Orleans for the day,” and prohibits Entergy from disconnecting service on a weekend, holiday, day before a holiday or on Friday after 1 p.m. Click here for councilmember contact information.
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