(TORONTO – March 11, 2015) - Just 13 months after launching an investigation into billing and customer service problems at Hydro One, Ontario Ombudsman André Marin announced today his office has received more than 10,000 complaints about the utility – its highest total, by far, for any investigation to date.
Noting that he intends to release a full report and recommendations this spring once the investigation is complete, Mr. Marin said today’s update on the case is in response to strong interest from complainants, Hydro One customers and public officials. “The flood of complaints continues, even though Hydro One has been aware of the issues we are investigating for over a year,” said Mr. Marin.
In his case update, which was tabled with the Legislature according to the Ombudsman’s normal reporting procedure, Mr. Marin cites several examples of trends in complaints, as well as “egregious” billing errors that were resolved through his office’s intervention.
Of particular concern, he said, were complaints that Hydro One was threatening to cut off the electricity of customers who were behind in their payments, regardless of the freezing winter temperatures. The Ombudsman determined that these threats were empty – but the blatantly misleading tactic terrified many customers who were unable to meet Hydro One’s demands for payment.
"It’s appalling that Hydro One threatened to disconnect power to people in one of Ontario’s worst winters on record,” Mr. Marin said. “We were told this was a common tactic in the industry to ‘encourage’ customers to pay, but it is cruel and deceitful. People were coming to us in tears, including families with young children and the elderly, terrified they would freeze or have to leave their homes.” On February 20, he asked Hydro One’s CEO to make it clear to customers that they will not be disconnected.
Hydro One responded at 4:55 p.m. yesterday, stating it had changed its disconnection notices due to the Ombudsman’s concerns. However, its proposed new warning letter is arguably worse, Mr. Marin said, noting that it depends on “weather conditions.”
Mr. Marin announced the investigation in February 2014 after a sudden spike of 647 complaints that began in April 2013 – almost double that of the previous year. Since then, 9,370 complaints have come in, increasing the total daily. A dedicated team of Ombudsman staff has worked with Hydro One to resolve individual complaints while the investigation into broader, systemic issues continues.
Investigators with the Special Ombudsman Response Team (SORT) have conducted more than 180 interviews, including with current and past Hydro One executives, frontline staff, stakeholders, and Hydro One’s outsourcing agencies, as well as whistleblowers and staff from the Ontario Energy Board and the Independent Electricity System Operator. They have also reviewed tens of thousands of Hydro One documents and emails.
The systemic investigation has identified several key themes that the Ombudsman intends to detail in the forthcoming report. These include inadequate response to customer issues; incorrect bills; lengthy periods with no bills; large “estimated” bills covering prolonged periods of time; unexpectedly large payments withdrawn from customers’ bank account; and unclear communication about charges and adjustments.
Since 2005, SORT has conducted some 30 major systemic investigations into issues affecting large numbers of Ontarians, sparking reforms of (among other things) newborn screening, crime victim compensation, property tax assessment, and the lottery system. The Ombudsman’s recommendations stemming from such investigations have been overwhelmingly accepted.
Anyone who has information relevant to the Ombudsman’s ongoing investigations can call 1-800-263-1830, file an online complaint or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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