On the occasion of the accumulated energy cost arrears of many people at risk of poverty, the Red Cross demands contact points for social hardship cases at the energy suppliers.
Vienna (OTS) – “Every provincial utility, every nationwide energy company and every regional network operator must assume its social responsibility more strongly than before and help to find long-term and feasible solutions for its customers – including those who are currently having a particularly hard time,” says Michael Opriesnig, Secretary General of the Austrian Red Cross. A disconnection or termination due to an unmanageable backlog is not a solution and only causes consequential costs for everyone, for example when affected persons lose their homes or jobs. After all, one cannot do without electricity, gas or district heating, as one does with some other services, simply because prices have risen. In addition, he said, income is worth less in real terms due to the current high inflation. “That’s why we have to cast a net together with the energy companies to catch social hardship cases and strengthen the solidarity society.”
Contact point for social hardship cases
Opriesnig therefore calls on the energy providers to set up their own functioning contact and advice points for social hardship cases, in addition to the normal customer service, which are easy to reach and can be found quickly on the website. The first contact could take place directly by the Kunden:innen or over a caring social mechanism, which examines and confirms the emergency situation of the Kunden:innen in the apron. “We fully understand that regular customer service staff are not social workers and have limited time per call. In order to relieve them and at the same time offer sustainable solutions to people in difficult life situations, these new contact points with specially trained employees are needed. Here, they can take more time, listen, find viable long-term solutions for the customer and thus prevent disconnections and cancellations. This also saves the energy provider enormous follow-up costs.” It is important to network with social institutions in the respective region and to hold regular joint consultation days. All this must be anchored in the new Energy Efficiency Act, “which we have been waiting for since the end of 2020,” says Opriesnig.
Good practice: cooperation with Wien Energie
The Red Cross Secretary General cites as a successful example the cooperation of the Individual Spontaneous Help (ISH) of the Austrian Red Cross at Paulanergasse 9G in Vienna’s 4th district with the ombudsman’s office of Wien Energie. On the bi-weekly energy talk days, the cases of energy poverty are examined in a personal conversation between the social workers of ISH, the affected clients and the specially trained colleagues of Wien Energie. Taking into account the individual energy consumption and the disposable income, all parties involved look for the causes of the payment problem, and sustainable solutions are worked out together in order to secure the energy supply. If necessary, ISH continues to accompany the clients until their living situation has stabilized.
As an example, Imre Siska, head of Individual Spontaneous Assistance, cites the case of a pregnant single mother with a child whose husband had unexpectedly moved out after a long-term relationship. Corona and short-time work had led to arrears in rent and district heating, with which the young mother was suddenly faced alone. The shutdown of the district heating was looming. “At the energy talk day, we agreed on a reminder block with Wien Energie so that the mother could take care of her rent arrears first and the district heating would not be turned off in the meantime. She was able to pay the rent arrears with the help of friends. Regarding the district heating arrears, an installment agreement that was affordable for her was then agreed upon.”
Support in social emergencies
The social services of the Austrian Red Cross (Individual Spontaneous Assistance ISH, Social Support and Team Austria Tafel) aim to provide people in need in Austria with stable livelihoods such as a heatable home, energy services and food and thus, in the long term, a dignified life and social and political participation. In 2021, ISH provided 4477 counseling and support sessions throughout Austria by 227 full-time and volunteer staff members.
85% of clients are single or single parents, 80% are of working age. Two thirds of the applicants have Austrian citizenship and are entitled to social benefits in Austria, which, however, do not cover living expenses. Therefore, 58% of ISH’s annual budget is used for back rent payments, and 27% (and rising) for back energy payments.
Vouchers or the Team Austria food banks help with the clients’ food needs: almost 18,000 households with more than 45,000 beneficiaries are now registered with the 119 distribution points throughout Austria, where more than 5,100 tons of food were distributed by the more than 5,500 volunteers in 2021.
Opriesnig: “In these difficult times, I appeal to the social responsibility of energy companies – the issue of energy is becoming increasingly precarious. It is possible! Solutions can be found that generate income for the energy suppliers and help the clients to maintain their dignity despite their difficult living situation. And that must remain an important goal of our solidarity society.”
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Austrian Red Cross
Mag. Antonia Filka
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