Washington Gas has been ordered to pay a civil penalty of more than $1.1 million by the Maryland Public Service Commission over long-standing customer service problems that have left frustrated Marylanders waiting on the phone.
The total fine of $1,147,600 follows a series of hearings by the commission, which has also ordered the utility to suspend collections, disconnections and late fees until it meets nine customer service metrics for three straight months.
Washington Gas, which was acquired by Canadian holding company AltaGas in 2018, promised to improve customer service as a condition of the approval of the merger by Maryland authorities.
Instead, the commission found, it got worse.
Overall, the regulator found that the percentage of customer calls answered within 30 seconds fell from 77% before the merger to just 43% afterward. Meanwhile, the percentage of calls abandoned by customers increased from 11% to 28%. In addition, the longest time customers had to wait for their call to be answered increased from 41 minutes to 67 minutes. The industry average is 8 minutes.
The commission ultimately ruled the utility’s customer service stumbles violated state regulations as well as the 2018 PSC order approving the gas merger.
In addition to the penalty, the commission is requiring Washington Gas to report a number of customer service metrics every month, including the percentage of emergency calls to the utility’s customer service line answered within 30 seconds.
In a March 17 news release, the commission said “this metric appears to be worsening.”
In a statement to WTOP, a Washington Gas spokesman said the utility is still reviewing the commission’s order levying the fine.
“Washington Gas apologizes for the challenges our customers faced recently with our call center and we appreciate their patience as we worked to resolve the issues,” the statement said.
The spokesman added: “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.
The spokesman said the utility is continuing to make customer service improvements and he encouraged customers with questions to contact the utility at 844-WASHGAS (844-927-4427). Our team is ready to help.
The gas company also publicly apologized last September for its customer service.
In a separate news release, the head of the Maryland Office of People’s Counsel, David Lapp, called the fine a “significant penalty” and said, “Most important, we hope that Washington Gas gets the message and improves its customer service.”
Lapp added, “The penalties vindicate the complaints of many Maryland consumers who have struggled with their gas service. 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.”
The Maryland Office of People’s Counsel, an independent state agency that represents Maryland’s residential utility customers, had lodged the complaints against the utility, which has 1.2 million customers throughout the D.C. area.