Pullman was living in Sun City West, Arizona with her cat Cocoa when she received a letter from APS informing her that she owed the utility company $176.84. She had only five days to pay the bill before APS would disconnect her service.
It was August 23, 2018 and the temperature outside was in the triple digits.
At the time, she was living on her Social Security income, which amounted to less than $1,000 per month. In an effort to help their mom, Pullman’s children covered her bills and helped with unexpected costs when needed. For example, in April of the same year, when Pullman’s air conditioner broke, her children had it repaired. Pullman’s daughter, Jeanine Smith, paid the phone bill and another daughter, Chris Hotes, paid for the internet.
According to Pullman’s final electric bill, she didn’t pay her balance with APS before the deadline of August 28. But APS didn’t cut her service. Instead, Pullman paid the utility company $125 on September 5, one day after she typically received her Social Security check.
Despite the payment, APS turn off Pullman’s electricity two days later, on September 7. Records indicate local temperatures reached 105 degrees that day and a nearby town recorded a high temperature of 107.
The following week, Hotes called the Sun City West Posse, after becoming alarming at not having heard from her mother. The group, responsible for conducting local wellness checks, alerted the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.
When they entered Pullman’s home that day, they found the 72-year-old woman in her bed—dead. According to the coroner’s report, her body was already in a state of decomposition thanks to the heat—a direct result of lack of air conditioning due to no electricity.
According to the medical examiner, Pullman’s death was caused by “environmental heat exposure in setting of significant cardiovascular disease.” In short, APS caused Pullman’s death.
Smith maintains that her mother was unaware that her electricity was at risk of being shut off. Had Pullman mentioned it to any of her children, they would have immediately covered the bill.
“We would’ve never let her power go out,” Smith said. “Never.”
Maricopa County began tracking heat-related deaths in 2006 and the county has seen a sharp increase over the last three years. 154 people died from heat-related causes in 2016, 179 in 2017, and 182 last year, in 2018. According to the data, 119 of those deaths were directly related to heat whereas in 63 cases heat was a contributing factor.
The data revealed something unexpected—40% of deaths happened indoors.
The data also shows that heat-related deaths can be predicted by socioeconomic status. Maricopa County residents who are older, isolated, or more financially unstable are at greater risk, much like in many other localities across the country.
“It seems like more and more people are not able to afford to keep the air conditioning on,” Dr. Vjollca Berisha, senior epidemiologist with the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, said. Berisha stresses that utility companies need to cut customers a break, especially during the peak—and potentially deadly—summer months.
Smith last heard from her mother via email on September 5. Pullman thanked her daughter for having her phone repaired. “The phone is fixed, thank you very much, love you, bye,” the email read.
One day earlier, Hotes spoke to her mother by phone. During that call, Pullman requested help paying for her water bill, to which Hotes replied she would. On September 7 Hotes left her mother a message telling her to keep an eye out for the money she sent.
Hotes never heard back from her mother and the medical examiner’s report did not indicate on which day Pullman likely died.
Because Pullman was $51.84 short when she paid her APS bill, her electricity was disconnected. According to the shut off warning she received, if Pullman later wished to reconnect it, which would be assumed in triple digit heat, Pullman would owe up to $135 for that service—ten dollars more than she was able to pay only days prior. With those charges, outstanding balance, taxes and more, Pullman was set to owe a shocking $335.57.
The 72-year-old’s final bill indicated that she owed $287.86, after her $125 payment. This bill included a “field call charge” of $10.65, which was incurred on September 5.
A field call charge is incurred “when an authorized Company representative travels to the Customer’s site to accept payment on a delinquent account, notify of service termination, make payment arrangements, or terminate the service,” according to a schedule filed with the Arizona Corporation Commission by Arizona Public Service.
If a representative does indeed travel to the customer’s home when the charge is incurred, this means someone from APS visited Pullman’s home mere days before her death, informing her face-to-face to face that her electricity was being shut off during a deadly heatwave.
During a phone call with APS, Smith told the representative on the other end “You ended my mom’s life for $51.”
The following month she left a review for the utility company on the Consumer Affairs website, giving them only one star. Smith said:
“It’s not like she didn’t pay anything. She paid $125. She still had to eat. She still had to buy toilet paper. She had to pay her mortgage. The details just made me ill.”
While there are rules in Arizona regarding when a utility can and cannot cut service, the exact circumstances are vague and unclear. And, in Stephanie Pullman’s case, neither she nor APS had the necessary information anyway.
According to Arizona’s Administrative Code, a utility cannot be disconnected if the customer can prove that “termination would be especially dangerous” to their health via medical documents. The code also indicates that service cannot be shut off “where weather will be especially dangerous to health,” but does not include specific weather events, temperatures, or dates.
The code also indicates that service cannot be cut when “ill, elderly, or handicapped persons” cannot pay their bill. The code does note that service can be cut if the customer is aware but not taking advantage of “the availability of funds from various government and social assistance agencies of which the utility is aware.”
Pullman, a 72-year-old grandmother with heart disease and Type II diabetes may have qualified as “elderly” or “ill” but APS was unaware of either of these things and did not inform her of Arizona’s Administrative Code, information that may have saved her life.
Regardless of the information that Pullman did or did not have about how her age and health may impact the potential for shut-off, the soaring temperatures that day should have prevented APS from cutting her service. But, according to APS, temperatures of 105-107 degrees is not “dangerous to health.”
Jill Hanks, a spokesperson for APS, said in an email:
“APS does not disconnect service for non-payment on extreme heat days as determined by weather experts.
We use multiple third-party weather services, including the National Weather Service, to alert us when weather conditions may be dangerous to a person’s health.”
In Maricopa County, where Pullman lived, the National Weather Service issues excessive heat warnings only when temperatures reach or exceed 110 degrees. Typical advice given during times of high heat include staying indoors, in air conditioning.
Senate Bill 1542 sought to change the process by creating a law protecting residents from shutoffs during extreme weather that would cover all utility companies.
Stacey Champion, local activist and author of the bill, said:
“Arizonans currently have no date- or temperature-based protection for utility shutoffs during extreme heat or cold, and this needs to be viewed as the public health crisis it is.”
Adding, “It is literally a matter of life or death.”
According to Phoenix New Times, the bill, “would have barred utilities in Arizona from disconnecting service when outside temperatures were forecast to fall below 32 degrees Fahrenheit or exceed 90 degrees. It also stipulated that utilities had to make “reasonable payment arrangements” with a customer before cutting service; if the customer didn’t honor that arrangement, then the utility could disconnect service only when temperatures were above 32 degrees or below 90, depending on the season.”
“It also would have unconditionally prohibited utilities from disconnecting service to a person or family if their household income fell below 200 percent of the federal poverty line and they made a minimum payment, or if an elderly person, pregnant person, child under the age of 5, or person on life support lived in the home. The bill also contained other stipulations aimed at protecting people with low incomes from being disconnected.”
But the bill never made it out of committee.
Smith maintains that if her mother had been aware that her electricity was at risk of being cut off, she would have asked family for help. Of Arizona Public Service, Smith said she didn’t want to talk to them again.
“There’s nothing they can do or say to change it. I just want policy change.”
APS began a temporary suspension of all disconnections for customers that are behind on their bills on Wednesday, saying they would take a step back and rethink their shutoff practices.
For now, the suspension is indefinite. APS claims to already have been re-evaluating shutoff policy, but hearing of Pullman’s case “factored into our decision to put that into effect.”