The Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare on Wednesday extended the application deadline for the federal Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), but the move does not extend the moratorium on utility shutoffs as requested by a Philadelphia nonprofit law firm.
"This extension will give individuals more time to apply for home heating assistance so they can keep warm for the remainder of the season," Gary D. Alexander, secretary of the department, said in a statement.
The extension pushes the deadline for applications for LIHEAP from Friday through April 13.
Michael Froehlich, a staff lawyer at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, welcomed the extension, saying the step would allow more Philadelphia families to apply for the program.
LIHEAP is a federally funded program that helps low-income families that cannot afford their utility costs. The program provides households an average of $268 per year that is credited to their heating bills. The Department of Public Welfare sends the LIHEAP grants directly to the utility, and they are then credited to customers' accounts.
Froehlich said the welfare department's extension does not address the deadline for shutoffs by electric and natural gas utilities. He said that as of March 16 there was a backlog of 34,000 unprocessed applications from Philadelphia residents and 57,000 statewide.
State law bars most utilities from terminating service to low-income customers during the winter. The winter moratorium is set to end Sunday.
In a March 23 letter to Robert F. Powelson, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, lawyers from Community Legal Services asked the commission to tell utilities to hold off on terminating utility service to people with pending applications for LIHEAP.
"Unfortunately, this does not solve the problem," Froehlich said of the application deadline extension. "It just says that if you have not yet applied for LIHEAP, that you now have two more weeks."
Jennifer Kocher, a spokesman for the PUC, said on Wednesday the request to extend the moratorium on shutoffs was under review by lawyers for the commission.
"We have it under legal review because we are not sure we have the authority," Kocher said.