Since the coronavirus pandemic forced much of the U.S. economy into a medically induced coma, 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment insurance, including more than 350,000 in Colorado.
Utility companies have agreed to suspend service shutoffs, but they still are sending bills and expecting payments. Denise Stepto, chief communications officer with Energy Outreach Colorado, said for many Coloradans, it's the first time they haven't been able to cover all their monthly expenses.
"If you are struggling to pay your rent, you are then struggling to find food and afford food," Stepto said. "The third thing we hear is that people then start to think about their utility bill. I don't know how much money is left at the end of all of that."
Stepto said people should pay whatever they can now, to avoid possible balloon payments when shut-offs resume. And she said it's also a good idea to reach out to your utility provider to create a payment plan.
Her group also has sent out postcards with tips for conserving energy, which can be a challenge as kids use laptops for home-schooling and game consoles to fight boredom while stuck at home.
Conservation is no stranger to older Coloradans whose parents lived through the Great Depression, but it can be a new concept for younger generations. Stepto said common-sense steps can make a big difference.
She suggests using cold water whenever possible to avoid fueling the water heater, and hanging clothes outside to dry if possible. Lower the thermostat and put on a sweater during spring's cold snaps, and shut blinds as summer nears.
"I think in these times where we feel like everything is out of our control, this is something where we can actually take control," she said. "Look at your bill, and watch it going down."
Assistance through the federal Low Income Energy Assistance Program, meant to help families with high winter bills, has been extended from April to August. Families needing help also can sign up through Energy Outreach Colorado's Bill Payment Assistance Program, which now can offer two grants in 2020.