MARYLAND, USA — Editor's Note: The video above originally aired Sept. 28, 2021.
Washington Gas is being ordered to pay a civil penalty of $1,147,600 for "widespread problems with its customer service," according to the Maryland Public Service Commission. The fine stems from a complaint filed in September 2021 by the Office of People's Counsel (OPC).
The Commission found a pattern of Washington Gas failing to adequately respond to customer service complaints, dating back to 2018 when it was acquired by AltaGas.
"We hope that Washington Gas gets the message and improves its customer service," said OPC's David Lapp.
The ruling found Washington Gas "consistently failed to meet industry standards for responding to customers who call its service center for issues such as connecting or terminating service, bill inquiries, and other matters." The ruling also cited regulatory violations and reporting failures.
“The penalties vindicate the complaints of many Maryland consumers who have struggled with their gas service,” Lapp said. “Washington Gas’s customers are captive and have nowhere else to turn for essential gas service, making it critical that Washington Gas improves its service. We will be monitoring Washington Gas’s progress in raising its performance to industry standards.”
WUSA9 reached out to Washington Gas for a reaction to the fine, and received the following statement:
"Washington Gas apologizes for the challenges our customers faced recently with our call center and appreciate their patience as we worked to resolve the issues. We have received the Maryland Public Service Commission order issued on March 17 and are in the process of reviewing. We are pleased to report that we have improved our customer service issues in 2022. On average, our customers are now able to reach a representative for emergency and non-emergency calls in less than 30 seconds. We are committed to make every effort to sustain and improve our customers’ call center experience. Washington Gas continues to enhance the customer experience, including additional self-serve options for our customers. If customers have questions or issues about their service, we encourage them to contact us at 844-WASHGAS (844-927-4427). Our team is ready to help."
In 2020 and 2021 WUSA9 reported on numerous customer complaint issues surrounding Washington Gas, including Tiffany Rodney's story. Rodney hit the ceiling when she opened a bill for more than $16,600. She said she was unable to get anyone at Washington Gas to help, and was even worried gas could be leaking somewhere in her home.
"It's been very frustrating," Rodney said. "I would sit online for 45 minutes one day it was an hour and 20 minutes and they just never picked up.”
She complained to Maryland’s Public Service Commission which reported in a statement:
“The Commission's Consumer Affairs Division has, in recent months, seen an increase in complaints about Washington Gas, mostly regarding an inability for customers to reach the utility by phone or get a response by email.”
Responding to WUSA9's inquiry, Washington Gas reported that the billing was a meter reading error.
In a letter to customers on Sept. 26, Washington Gas admitted to “unacceptably long hold times." Washington Gas also issued an apology on Twitter on Aug. 23 after similar complaints.
In December 2020, Washington Gas’ Facebook page was flooded with customer complaints and scorching criticism, alleging a lack of service and inability to reach an agent via phone to address the issues.
“I moved into my place 14 days ago and they still haven’t turned on my gas”, wrote one customer.
“We need help. We are freezing and have no warm water. What is wrong with this company?” wrote another.
Washington Gas spokesman Brian Edwards said the company was grappling with a slowdown at the Virginia-based contractor that handles customer service for the utility.
"We recognize that we're not meeting our customers’ expectations right now," Edwards said at the time.
He reported the customers were averaging wait times of 30 to 45 minutes to get through to the customer service call center.
"Certainly COVID-19 has impacted us like other businesses, but we're not using that as an excuse,” Edwards said. "It's a combination of increased calls and staffing challenges, and that combination isn't a good mix. We're working to implement a virtual hold platform so that customers can get a callback and not have to sit on the phone. We expect to have that operational probably in about a month or so."
One woman WUSA9 spoke with, Joanne Jackson of Lexington Park Maryland was moving into a new apartment that weekend and feared she would not have gas connected when she moved in. After a week of trying to reach Washington Gas to schedule a set-up, she turned to WUSA9 instead.
After inquiries from WUSA9, Washington Gas determined the gas service was turned on. Jackson was relieved but pointed out that the situation could have been avoided had she been able to contact Washington Gas customer service during the five days she said she had been working on the issue.
"My lease [was] up, so we ha[d] to [move,]" Jackson said. "Who can live in this weather with no heat?"
A larger number of customers were dealing with billing and financial issues, increased pressure on customer service workers and contributing to long wait times, according to Edwards.
In October 2020, there were approximately 80,000 past due accounts more than three months behind, which is a 28% increase compared to the same time in 2019, according to a Washington Gas statement.
The Director of Montgomery County's Office of Consumer Protection, Eric Friedman, says the agency will help consumers attempt to contact Washington Gas.
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