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Photograph by George Sakkestad

All or Nothing: While thousands of customers complain about the climbing rates on their monthly bills, PG&E spokesman Scott Blakey confirms that an ongoing "computer glitch" has left an estimated 45,000 customers out of the billing system altogether.

Paying Later

A PG&E computer glitch has left as many as 45,000 customers begging for their bills--then regretting that they did

By Mary Spicuzza

NO BILL HAS EVER INSPIRED so much anticipation. For months I waited, expecting to open my silver post office box to find a letter--even a postcard--from Pacific Gas and Electric Company. And for six months, since I transferred the account into my name in October 2000, it failed to appear.

Honestly, not one of the six other housemates in our poorly insulated monolith of a suburban home was complaining. We heard tales of gas and electric bills doubling at nearby homes and initially shared a sense of relief, a hope that we had escaped the skyrocketing costs that go along with a statewide energy crisis.

It wasn't until two of the residents started talking about an indefinite trip to Thailand, and I realized I might end up paying their portion of the months-old bill, that I began my onslaught of calls to PG&E employees, begging them to do what seemed to be the unthinkable: send my bills.

After numerous calls, being subjected to countless elevator-music tunes while on hold, and chats with a variety of customer service representatives or their voicemail boxes, the bill arrived. My household now owes more than $1,000 for nearly half a year of service. We were given about two weeks to pay.

Power Dynamics

THE TELEPHONE CALLS to PG&E during that time didn't actually produce a bill until my tone shifted from concerned and confused to frantic bordering on threatening. During that time, getting on the phone with a PG&E employee felt oddly like waiting in a doctor's office. Long wait times, accompanied by oldies or instrumental medleys, preceded brief interactions where each employee's primary purpose seemed to be assuring the customer that there was no reason to panic, that things are operating smoothly in the PG&E billing department. Each representative soothingly explained that plenty of other customers were waiting for their bills, too, and that I would be hearing from them soon. Not until one of the busy workers, tired of being interrogated for estimates of my debt, checked the specific account status did the company realize it had no intention of sending a bill for service, thanks to a computer glitch.

"There was a changeover in internal billing procedure, which came as a side-dish to deregulation," PG&E spokesperson Scott Blakey says. "There was some problem in the software. It seemed to occur most when somebody was changing service. But it never affected more than one-half of 1 percent of our customers."

Apparently, deregulation changed PG&E's payment structure so drastically that the company had to overhaul its billing system and buy new software to process more complicated data. But Blakey adds that sometimes computers and software don't mix. He estimates that about 45,000 customers statewide have had trouble with their bills due to the computer glitch, but promptly boasts statistics about PG&E's massive customer base.

The utility company, incorporated in 1905, serves 13 million people throughout a 70,000-square-mile service area stretching from Eureka to Bakersfield, from the Pacific Ocean to the Sierra Nevada mountains.

"When you think that we have 13 million customers," Blakey adds, putting a corporate perspective on the glitch, "it's a tiny percentage. This is nothing that these customers have done. It's more a matter of fine-tuning the software."

He insists that the seemingly forgotten customers will eventually get their bills, and that none will be charged with late fees or lose their power due to company error. PG&E has been dealing with the glitch for several years now, but Blakey says they hope to have it "cleaned up" by this summer. He admits that the problem is a major annoyance for customers, and relates the tale of a divorcee who fought having to pay for months of her estranged husband's gas and electric power bills.

"But she was smarter than you," Blakey says. "She called me right away."

Senior Power

HARVEY OLSON lives with his wife in a mobile home at a senior park in the city of Turlock, just outside of Modesto. He says that he made countless calls to PG&E, beginning in October, during the months he waited for his bill. But Olson says he didn't actually receive a bill until his story was printed in the Modesto Bee.

"I'm on a fixed income," he says, adding that employees kept blaming their computers. "I had no alternative but to go to the Bee."

When his bill arrived, Olson owed $350. Employees worked with him to set up a payment plan.

"Then I got a bill yesterday and it said 'Past Due,'" he says. "They are pleasant when I call, and just blame it on the computer. But something's got to be done about this."

Even though the problem has been going on for several years, Blakey seems confident company computers will be running smoothly by summer, despite the ongoing energy crisis. As far as busy customer service representatives taking the time to help customers like Olson solve account troubles, not even Blakey tries to make any promises.

"They handle a zillion calls a day and sometimes people make mistakes," Blakey says. "But you're going to come off OK because you can always call me."

He says that those customers with the most trouble from the glitch are the ones who don't call because they think they've escaped the system, then receive a massive bill for months of service.

Paying Bills
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Oh No, Mr. Bill: For some of the customers lost in the PG&E computer glitch, the long-awaited bills equal their monthly salary when the statements finally arrive.

No Satisfaction

MAYBE IF I HAD been as smart as the prompt divorcee, perhaps if I hadn't secretly hoped to beat the system and avoid paying PG&E, I wouldn't now be staring down at the latest PG&E bill for $1,062.56. A nagging feeling of stubborn pride, though, makes me suspect that the numerous calls both Harvey Olson and I made to the company should have yielded some results at least a few months sooner. And PG&E representatives, even media-savvy Scott Blakey, failed to mention that the company has specific policies regarding billing errors.

The Utility Reform Network, or TURN, faxed a few pages of PG&E's Rule 17, effective January 10, 1998, which deals with adjustment of bills due to company error. According to the section about billing errors resulting in undercharges to the consumer, customers can be held responsible only for a limited amount of time.

It reads, "If a residential service is found to have been undercharged due to a billing error, PG&E may bill the Customer for the amount of the undercharge for a period of three months."

Blakey did not return calls about company billing policy before deadline. But Linda Woods, manager of public affairs for the California Public Utilities Commission, says that it's unclear whether PG&E's underbilling rules apply in these computer glitch cases.

"I'm certainly well aware of the policy," Woods says. "I'm just not sure that it applies in this instance, where there's no billing error. Customers just aren't receiving their bills."

Woods says that last year the commission received a lot of complaints about the glitch, but she hardly hears about problems anymore.

Maybe that's because those left waiting for bills think they've beaten the system or--like me--aren't smart enough to call Woods and Blakey right away. Maybe others have felt responsible and quietly paid those $1,000 debts to Pacific Gas & Electric Company.

Blakey suggests that the glitch has escaped media scrutiny because the problem is under control and people's payment needs are being met.

"The bottom line is," Blakey says, "are you satisfied?"

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From the May 17-23, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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