Naputulan ka na ba ng ilaw?

by Arlene Burgos, ABS-CBNnews.com

Posted at Aug 08 2013 03:15 PM | Updated as of Aug 09 2013 07:02 AM

The short version of it is that I failed to pay my electricity bill.

But in the larger scheme of things, there are other elements at work in a complicated set of circumstances at play. If you wanna know what they are, read on for the long version of the story. Ito ang nangyari, kaya naputulan ako ng kuryente...

Truth is, I paid my electricity bill couple of days ago. I have the digital confirmation slip to prove this online transaction.

Unfortunately, no amount of mobile banking nor of e-commerce could have allowed me to settle an arrear with Meralco. You can only pay online the current bill. If you want to settle an unpaid charge from a previous amount, you go to a business center and pay there.

But that's assuming you know you owe Meralco, which I didn't. And that is how it all started.

My mother had a double dose of sarcasm on top of her usual layer of nastiness when she told me Wednesday afternoon that she and my son came home from his gym sessions and found the power meter turned upside down, and the electricity cut off. I could not imagine the part about the power meter being turned a certain way. But I was able to capture very vividly the picture of my apartment without electricity.

My son, a 14-year-old boy diagnosed with ASD at 2 1/2, is a gamer. Playstation, PSP, Wii, XBox...You name it, he's into it. He is not a spoiled brat who passes time away. It's just that in my and my family's numerous attempts to get through his autism and teach him practical daily life know-how, we have stumbled upon these gadgets and games as teaching and learning tools. My son needed electricity.

Technology was a life-changing enabler for my son. It has allowed us to tap into a certain passageway to his world that would have been otherwise inaccessible for us. It is probably this deep meaning that technology brings to my son's life that I have come to love digital. In recent years, when we have seen a deluge of new mobile products, my son has been pleasantly surprising me whenever he would blurt out the name of a product or an upgrade I've never heard of before. It was him, for instance, from whom I first heard the "iPad Mini". And then he would laugh no end at apps that allow users to manipulate or play with pictures, especially portraits. It took him awhile to forgive me for uninstalling Flixel from my phone. (I removed the app because I thought he was obsessing over it.)

The point is that this boy has special needs; the devices have been helpful for us to help him take care of himself.

One day without electricity and therefore without his precious Titanic remix video on YouTube is not gonna throw off the strides from years of therapy. But it made my son skip his home-based ABA (applied behavioral analysis) therapy session today.

Luckily, family and friends came to my aid and paid the bill on my behalf as I couldn't leave the office because of pre-scheduled meetings.

But here is the deal with Meralco: it takes 24 hours for them to restore electricity that it took them a sleight of hand to cut.

I called 16211 and the Commonwealth (Quezon City) Business Center and, for what seemed to be at least a hundred times, explained my situation.

"Yes, I have paid my bill. Can power be restored now? How soon can you do it?"

"I don't recall receiving a disconnection notice. Weren't you suppose to ensure I have received it so that I would have been adequately warned?"

"There was no one in my house when your guys did what you did with the power meter. Was that SOPAre your guys allowed to operate that way?"

The people who handled my calls were courteous, doing their best to follow SOPs and protocols in case of irate callers like myself, reading out to me what I am sure are responses to FAQs, and trying to hold it in for as long as they could. And yet they all failed to get the point.

During those phone calls, some things became apparent: Meralco does not have a centralized customer response management system between their centers -- I
have to repeat to Center A what I already told Center B; there is a glitch in the database that prevented them from finding a customer's records based on certain names -- the workaround is to correlate the name to an address (and while we're at it: the addresses in the database are not searchable by simply typing in places; the places are indexed such that you have to choose from a dropdown for every street, barangay and so on); and the most irritating of all -- if all these Meralco agents are to be believed, they do not have any means to contact their personnel on the ground, such that the dispatching authority on base can get in touch with those "line-men" (or -women) on their location or the status of the power restoration jobs.

I asked two questions which I thought should be answered so I know if my request for immediate restoration of power was within reason:

1) Can Meralco records show I or anyone in my household received any disconnection notice?

2) Can Meralco tell me whether it was all right to cut off lines without anyone from the household?

The company's failure to give immediate reply especially to the first query revealed another flaw in Meralco's customer relations ecosystem. If their agents are correct in telling me they would have to summon another unit's records to know if I have been given a disconnection notice, then they released a disconnection order without firm knowledge of whether I have been adequately warned or not.

This has been exasperating and while I am not getting anywhere with my query on when power would be restored, my son has failed to have his therapy, and he and my mother are literally going to have to go through the night in darkness while I finish work.

Learned colleagues with whom I have had lengthy discussions about best practices in journalism advised me to seek help. It was against a long-held belief of mine but these colleagues assured it would be a harmless request.

I sent out an SOS text to someone in Meralco. I got a short, curt reply about my diatribe, followed by the phone call from someone in the same office.

It was 5 p.m. But I received a very firm assurance power would be restored within the day. Since, as I learned earlier, the Meralco troops work until 10 p.m., and given that all I'm requesting is for the "unceremonious" disconnection of electricity to be rectified, then I have a good chance of getting power back early evening.

The hours passed. No one came. No one also got back to me on the promised reply to my question on the disconnection notice. I realize what this is.

The promised reconnection period of 24 hours is really that: you have to wait at least 24 hours. It doesn't matter if I have religiously paid in all the other circumstances, or that I may have failed to get the disconnection notice. Aware or not of the unpaid amount from previous charges, I was written off as a delinquent customer who should be punished. And in their own Pavlovian manner of doing things, I was taught a very bitter lesson of the consequence of not minding the details of my electric bill.

I must admit the exasperation and the sense of hopelessness has brought me to tears. This is possibly middle-class-kind of angst I'm having, but that is exactly the point.

I am middle class. I have never had my electricity cut off save for this time when I failed to get the supposed notice. When I gave up talking to those agents who neither had the sensibility to escalate my issue nor to realize my case was an exemption and therefore should not be sternly met with the corporate coldness of prepared FAQ responses or protocols, I had the option to seek help.

That help did not come, and I am ranting now not because I feel I am owed, but because i feel I have been violated.

I have some form of means. And yet it could be this bad for me. What about those who have less? How are they being treated?

I am articulate enough to make my point in all those hotlines and even to those Meralco officials and yet no one has been able to remedy my situation. I have been unable to jolt them into acting on what I thought were valid customer grievances. What about those who have questions but do not have courage to voice these out?

I want to stop the questioning there. But tomorrow I want to try finding answers.

And by tomorrow, Meralco's people probably shall have restored my electricity. They could do that. Sure.

But there is no taking away anything from this evening of darkness when, lying here on the sofa in my living room, beside the folding bed of my son and the other sofa where my mother sleeps, as we share an electric fan powered by the neighbor's electricity cord, I realize why some people have gone to the extent that they did in condemning big corporations' indifference to the plight of the poor and powerless.

This kind of situation is humiliating -- the type that gnaws at you and which will make you remember the infraction every time you pay your bill, and you count to ensure that you are settling your obligation up to the last cent that they can exact from you.

They should change their slogan from that silly attempt at melodrama, "may liwanag ang buhay" to the more in-your-face, matter-of-factly, "magbayad nang maaga nang hindi maabala." Because that is really the point, isn't it?

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.