South Carolina retiree Shirley Spann lives alone and makes do on monthly disability payments from Social Security. While she has close ties to her daughter, son-in-law and grandchild, they live hundreds of miles away in Maryland. Nevertheless, Spann is proud of her independent life.
“I’m good with food and I’m safe. But it’s a struggle every month for sure, and this time it seems harder,” said Spann, 66, a member of Berkeley Electric Cooperative, who is riding out the COVID-19 pandemic alone in her modest one-story duplex.
But recently, Spann got some welcome news from the Moncks Corner co-op: All of her February electric bill and some of her March bill are covered thanks to a refund of her security deposit.
“It’s just overwhelming,” she said. “It’s like they were giving me a small gift.”
In early March, co-op directors authorized refunds of $4.8 million in security deposits as bill credits to more than 33,000 residential accounts to provide financial relief to members during the pandemic. Directors waived the two-year waiting period.
“We know the COVID-19 pandemic is causing financial hardships for families in our community—many of our members are facing reduced wages or are unable to work,” said Dwayne Cartwright, BEC’s president and CEO. “They also need electricity more than ever as they follow health officials’ recommendations to stay home to slow the spread of the virus. We want to do everything in our power to help our members during this difficult time.”
The BEC refund is one of several extraordinary responses by co-ops and their directors to help members facing financial hardships as a result of the pandemic. Measures have included early retirement of capital credits, suspension of service disconnects and disbursement of Operation Round Up funds.
Directors at Northeastern REMC in Columbia City, Indiana, recently voted to retire $1.23 million in capital credits to 21,000 members—nine months ahead of the usual retirement schedule. The funds will appear as bill credits, and each recipient will receive the same percentage of their allocated capital credits.
“We understand that our members need the money now, not nine months from now,” said Eric Jung, the co-op’s president, in a video to members. He noted that four times as many people than usual will benefit.
“Usually, those who’ve been here the longest get the largest checks, said Christopher Todd, the co-op’s director of marketing and communications. “But these aren’t normal times, so they voted on a flat, across-the-board percentage to get the money out to as many members as possible.”
Co-ops are also steering Operation Round Up donations toward local needs. Typically, charities or individuals seeking assistance apply to a foundation set up by co-ops to administer the funds based on individual timetables.
Recently, the Operation Round Up Foundation at Peace River Electric Cooperative in Wauchula, Florida, awarded $30,000 to three local groups for food donations.
“With schools closed and lives disrupted due to the loss of jobs, food pantries are seeing a spike in demand by area residents in need,” said Ellen Hamel, chairperson of the PRECO foundation. “During this critical time, local food pantries are the lifeline for so many families when it comes to having ample food.”
The foundation’s nine members voted unanimously to grant $15,000 to Hardee Help Center, $10,000 to Our Daily Bread and $5,000 to the Salvation Army in Manatee County, where there’s been a spike in demand.
Normally, the Salvation Army relies on donations and food from local grocery stores to feed shelter residents and the public. But because “everyone is hoarding, there’s no food to be disposed of or donated,” said Kelly French, director of community relations and development.
Instead, said French, the charity has had to buy food items outright.
“The [co-op’s] donation is extremely helpful and will cover a meal service for a whole week.”
Victoria A. Rocha is a staff writer at NRECA.
See NRECA’s COVID-19 hub on cooperative.com for key resources for co-ops, including guidance on business continuity planning and communication, as well as event schedule changes.