In a move consumer advocates say will hurt immigrants and seniors, Con Edison is preparing to close its last four service centers that accept last-minute cash payments, primarily from the company’s poorest customers. In doing so, they are also helping grow an at-times unfriendly business: check cashers.
Under a plan approved by the Public Service Commission last March, the utility giant planned to close its center in Jamaica, Queens, on March 15, and the remaining three in Harlem, downtown Brooklyn and the Fordham section of the Bronx soon after.
The centers have primarily served cash-poor customers, with 400 to 500 dropping by each day to ask questions about their bills and to make last-minute payments. “The people who use these centers are not people with big checking accounts or who pay bills on-line,” says Tracy Shelton, an attorney for New York Public Interest Research Group, which opposes the closures. “Some of them might not have checking accounts at all.”
In its own defense, Con Edison says growing market pressures and competition within the electricity industry made the decision necessary. Besides, says a company spokesperson, services will actually improve. “We are taking nothing away,” said D. Joy Faber of Con Ed. “There are more options than ever to pay bills, either by mail, over the phone, or online.”
And if a bill-payer can’t get online and has to pay in cash, the company has made arrangements with about 120 check-cashing places around the city, as well as some banks and other utility companies like KeySpan, to accept their payments and forward them to Con Ed. For customers with questions about their bills, Con Ed says it also plans to set up five smaller walk-in centers—-one in every borough—-and a sixth in Westchester County; these stations will not accept payments.
While Con Ed says check cashers won’t charge customers for taking their payments—they typically charge between $1 and $2.50 for other transactions—customers fear that ending face-to-face business with their electric company will compromise service. Check-cashing offices are already known for long lines, and service at the new, smaller walk-in centers is expected to be glacially slow: Only four workers will staff the Jamaica office, down significantly from the 14 customer reps who work at its outgoing center.
“The service will get so bad that people won’t bother to come anymore,” says Stephen Dagis, a Con Ed customer rep in Jamaica who expected to soon be shifted to work at a back office. “They will have to figure things out for themselves or wait on the telephone forever like everyone else.”
Customers also question the trustworthiness of check-cashing places. “When you give your money to someone second-hand, you never know what can happen,” says Terry Allen of Brooklyn, who uses the Jamaica payment center every month. “A lot of those check-cashing places are dangerous. I never go in them.”
Though they are overseen by the state Banking Department, the check cashers do not abide by set standards, which can vary wildly among individual locations. “There is nothing that says anything about how long the lines can be,” says Sarah Ludwig of the Economic Development Advocacy Project. “Or even how they treat customers.”