When customers ask for help, a small but mighty team at UniSource works behind the scenes to ensure qualified low-income customers facing financial hardships get the assistance they need.
Our Special Plans Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) specialize in administering several assistance programs, including our CARES and Warm Spirit programs. The five-member team also processes emergency bill payment assistance provided by dozens of community agencies statewide and manages Budget Billing enrollments.
During the pandemic, the team’s workload has increased significantly. Not only are more customers requesting financial help, but more customers qualify for monthly discounts from UniSource as a result of expanded eligibility. Additional federal funding also has been made available for utility bill assistance.
In 2020, the team processed 6,000 assistance payments totaling $3.8 million. This year, the number of applications increased to 11,000 and totaled more than $6.5 million just through August.
“Our team is small, but they’ve done an outstanding job of keeping up with the increase in requests for bill payment assistance,” said Eileen Jacobson, Manager of Customer Programs and Services for UniSource. “They work very well together as a team.”
When customers contact a community agency to request bill payment assistance, the agency verifies their eligibility and then contacts UniSource to confirm the funding amount. The Special Plans team then processes the paperwork to ensure the correct payment amount is credited to customers’ accounts.
“That’s just one function they perform in addition to supporting several other programs,” Jacobson said.
The team also processes applications for our Customer Assistance Residential Energy Support (CARES) program. This program gives eligible low-income gas and electric customers a monthly discount on their energy bills. The CSRs verify customer eligibility, enter them into our system and recertify customers annually.
Additionally, the CSRs ensure that charitable donations to the Warm Spirit fund are distributed to local agencies. Customers’ contributions, which in turn provide bill payment assistance for eligible families, totaled more than $126,000 just through August of this year.
Finally, the Special Plans team supports customers who have enrolled in Budget Billing, a program that divides your annual energy costs into 12 equal payments so that you pay the same amount each month, making it easier to budget. The team adjusts the monthly amount annually if customers are under or over their budgeted amount, based on actual energy usage.
“While many other agencies have hired more people to handle the higher demand for assistance, we’re always conscious about keeping costs as low as we can, so we’ve kept the same level of staffing to process customer assistance,” Jacobson said. “Our team has really stepped up to the challenge, and I’m incredibly proud of their work to ensure struggling customers get the help they need.”
Special Plans CSR Diana Watahomigie, who has worked at UniSource for 15 years, said she is proud of how her team has pulled together. “There’s so much need right now and it can be stressful and challenging, but we’re all very close as coworkers and friends. We come up with a game plan every day and all share in the workload.”