Austin Energy helping furloughed workers with utility bills

- Robert Cullick, Director of Communications for Austin Energy says they handle utility billing for more than just energy, they also do drainage fees, garbage collection, water and more.

And if you're a federal worker affected by the government shutdown, they want to help you with your bill. "Suddenly we have thousands of people who never expected to be in need are in need because of action that they really had no control over," Cullick said.

Austin Energy says of their 480,000 customers, about 120 furloughed workers have called about needing some assistance.  They say about 20 of those are in dire need and the other 100 are making plans...just in case the dry spell keeps going. "The bills are just now going out for some of those employees who have not received a paycheck last week so now you've got no paycheck and now that utility bill's coming in," Cullick said.

Cullick says to call 512-494-9400 if you're a federal worker and you need help.  

According to Austin Energy, they can postpone collection activity for 30 days, evaluate if the customer is eligible for assistance through some of their programs. And if the affected customer's utility has been disconnected due to non-payment, service will be restored.

They say if the shutdown lasts more than 30 days the city will re-evaluate each customer's situation. "Don't wait. If you know now that you're not getting a paycheck and your City of Austin utility bill is coming due or will soon come due or perhaps will arrive soon go ahead and give us a call," Cullick said.

On a separate note, FOX 7 Austin spoke with Janice Duncan from Fort Worth by phone.

Duncan is a furloughed HUD employee. She's also Union President of the local chapter of American Federation of Government Employees. On an emotional level, Duncan says the shutdown is challenging. "I try to be positive in the midst of everything but this is taking a toll.  I'm practically...I feel like I'm a hostage," Duncan said.  

As a furloughed worker, Duncan says health insurance is still there.

"Well the health benefits are still coming, we're ok with that, that's going to continue," she said.

According to an FAQ from the United States Office of Personnel Management, an employee’s federal health benefits coverage will continue even if an agency doesn't make the premium payments.  The premiums will accumulate and be deducted once the paychecks start coming again.

But dental and vision is another story. If no premium payment is received for 2 consecutive pay periods, the employee will get billed directly. So if the shutdown doesn't end soon: "I'm going to have to rely on my reserve account.  Like they say 'always save for a rainy day,'" Duncan said.

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