Australians who are having difficulty paying their energy bills should get in touch with their retailer and seek the protection they are legally entitled to.
Energy retailers are obliged to implement new customer hardship policies that provide clearer and better assistance to customers experiencing financial difficulty.
The Australian Energy Regulator's (AER) Customer Hardship Policy Guideline now requires retailers to ensure hardship programs are easily accessible to customers and that standard statements explaining how they will help customers are included in their policies.
If you or your client is having issues paying their energy bills here is a list of helpful tips:
1. Contact the retailer
There is assistance available through the electricity or gas retailer. It is important to contact them as soon as possible if your client is experiencing financial difficulty.
Before making the call, help your client prepare by:
- Making sure they understand their rights. Refer to the tips below to make sure you understand your client's rights.
- Considering their budget. Help your client to work out how much they can afford to pay immediately towards the bill, and then how much they could afford to pay on an ongoing weekly or fortnightly basis.
- Helping them make the call. You can speak to the retailer on your client's behalf if they wish. Your client will need to be present to identify themselves as the account holder, or provide written permission for the retailer to speak to you.
2. Ask for the hardship team
In addition to negotiating a payment plan, retailers must also have a financial hardship policy to provide individualised support for customers who are experiencing payment difficulty. Depending on the retailer, a hardship program may include incentive payments, energy efficiency audits or financial counselling advice.
To access this support, ask to speak to the retailer’s hardship team. When trying to access to the hardship program, it can be useful to use the name of the program for that particular retailer. Also, some retailers provide a dedicated phone line for financial counsellors and community sector support workers to access the hardship team directly. This can help save you time and ensure you can get timely assistance for your client.
The details about the hardship programs provided by retailers in Queensland is listed in the links below.
- Ergon Energy – Customer Assist Program
- Origin Energy – Power On Program
- AGL – Staying Connected Program
- EnergyAusralia – EnergyAssist Program
- Click Energy - Financial Hardship Policy
- Dodo Power and Gas – Customer Hardship Policy
- QEnergy – Staying ON Hardship Program
- Sanctuary Energy - Customer Hardship Assistance Program
- Diamond Energy – Residential Customer Hardship Policy
- Momentum Energy – Hardship Policy
- Red Energy – Hardship Policy
- Simply Energy – Hardship Policy
3. Ask about concessions
Make sure your client is receiving all the concessions they are eligible for.
The Queensland Government provides a number of concessions to reduce the costs of electricity and gas for people who meet certain eligibility criteria.
- Electricity Rebate : This rebate is available to customers who hold a Pensioner Concession Card, Queensland Seniors Card, Department of Veterans’ Affairs Gold Card, Health Care Card or Asylum Seekers with an ImmiCard. The payment is made to the energy retailer who deducts the discount from the electricity bill. Visit the Queensland Government website for information on the current rebate amounts, eligibility criteria and how to apply.
- Reticulated Natural Gas Rebate: This rebate is available to customers who are connected to the reticulatd natural gas network and who hold a Pensioner Concession Card, Queensland Seniors Card or Department of Veterans’ Affairs Gold Card. The payment is made to the gas retailer who deducts the discount from the gas bill. Visit the Queensland Government website for information on the current rebate amounts, eligibility criteria and how to apply.
- Medical Heating and Cooling Concession Scheme: This concession helps people who have a chronic medical condition that requires the use of an air‑conditioner for cooling or heating in order to manage their condition. The payment is made directly into the nominated bank account each quarter. Visit the Queensland Government website for information on the current rebate amount, eligibility criteria and how to apply.
- Life Support Rebate: People who use oxygen concentrators or kidney dialysis machines supplied by Queensland Health may be eligible for this concession to help them manage the electricity costs associated with running these machines. Application forms are sent to eligible users within 14 days of receiving their machines. Information on the current rebate amounts, eligibility criteria and how to apply is available on the Queensland Government website.
The Australian Government also provides an Essential Medical Equipment Payment. This payment helps with the additional costs of running essential medical equipment or medically-required heating or cooling (or both) to manage a disability or medical equipment. The payment must be claimed through Centrelink. Visit the Department of Human Services website for more information.
4. Negotiate a payment plan
The National Energy Customer Framework (NECF) requires electricity retailers to offer instalment plans to customers who inform them that they are experiencing payment difficulties.
When negotiating instalment plans, retailers are required to take into account the customer’s financial capacity to pay and the cost of their estimated ongoing electricity usage needs. The amount of the instalments should cover the existing debt owed as well as the cost of estimated ongoing usage.
Before your client agrees to a payment plan:
- Help them to work out how much they can realistically afford to pay each week, fortnight or month. Make sure they will have enough left to cover other essential expenses, such as rent, food and medical expenses.
- Confirm that they can afford to meet all the payments over the time period, and that they have an arrangement in place to make the payments on a regular basis.
- Check with the retailer that the payments are enough to repay the debt and also cover the cost of their ongoing bills. If this is not possible, the client will need additional support so they don't fall further behind.
The requirement on retailers to offer a payment plan does not apply if a customer has had two payment plans cancelled due to non-payment within the last 12 months. The retailer may still offer one, but they are not obligated to do so. That is why it is important not to agree to a payment plan that is not affordable.
If you client's circumstances change, or they have already agreed to a payment plan they can't afford, contact the retailer as soon as possible.
5. Set up regular payment arrangements
Making more regular payments can help avoid building up a large debt, making future bills easier to manage.
If your client receives a Centrelink income, they can access Centrepay to make automatic deductions to help pay electricity and gas bills in smaller instalments.
Many retailers also offer other options such as monthly billing, bill smoothing or direct debit. Contact the electricity or gas retailer to see what alternative payment arrangement they can offer.
6. Contact a free Financial Counsellor
Financial counselling is a free, independent and confidential service to help people who are in financial difficulty. Call 1800 007 007 or visit the Financial Counselling Australia website to find a Financial Counsellor in your area.
7. Apply for the Home Energy Emergency Assistance Scheme (HEEAS)
The Queensland Government’s Home Energy Emergency Assistance Scheme (HEEAS) offers a one-off payment of up to $720 for Queensland customers who are unable to pay their electricity or gas bill due to a short-term financial crisis.
To be eligible, your client must be able to demonstrate that in the last 12 months:
- Their household income has substantially decreased - for example, due to job loss, decrease in work hours, family separation, or unexpected illness, injury or disability; OR
- They have experienced high unexpected expenses on essential items - for example, replacing or repairing their fridge, washing machine or hot water system, car repairs, direct funeral expenses, removalist expenses or once-off medical expenses not covered by Medicare.
The retailer can email or post the HEEAS application form upon request - or you can download a HEEAS application form here. Even if you download the form online, you still need to contact the retailer to obtain a reference number before the application will be accepted.
8. Find ways to reduce energy costs
Energy retailers can provide information on how to reduce energy costs.
9. Upgrade appliances
Old and inefficient appliances such as fridges and air-conditioners can be costly to run. Your client may be eligible to apply for a no-interest loan to upgrade to a newer, more energy efficiency model to help them save money. For more information, visit www.nils.com.au.
10. Ask for a discount
If your client lives in South East Queensland, they have a choice of electricity and gas offers. Ask the retailer if they can offer a discount or negotiate a better price. You can also compare and search for an energy offer on the Energy Made Easy website.
11. Take further action
Customers who encounter difficulties in dealing with an energy company, or getting access to assistance they are entitled to, can lodge a complaint with the Energy and Water Ombudsman Queensland. Call 1800 662 837 or visit the Energy and Water Ombudsman Queensland website.
QCOSS has a number of energy fact sheets available to download from our website. You can print these fact sheets to hand out to clients.
You can also watch this video on StudioQ for more information on where to get help.