“This finding shows how important it is to pick up the phone and talk to your energy retailer about their best offer,” Dr Hamill said.
“Small businesses could be experiencing bill stress during this challenging period and these potential savings could provide some welcome relief.”
Award-winning chef Peter Gunn, who owns two-hatted Collingwood restaurant Ides, says his quarterly gas bill for cooking, boiling and searing hundreds of dishes on a six-burner stove each week, along with running a gas hot water system, is about $1300.
“With the gas bills, you do forget they are coming,” Mr Gunn said. “And any time you get an invoice for over $1000, it hurts.”
Like many hospitality businesses hit hard by the COVID-19 lockdown, his restaurant reduced its opening days from seven days to five and turned to takeaway meals and deliveries to survive.
But the bills didn’t stop. The small business owner said hundreds of invoices land on his desk each month, from big energy companies to small suppliers.
“I would love to be able to have a relationship with my gas company like I do with many of my suppliers,” Mr Gunn said.
“If there was something of benefit to me, it would be great if they reached out before things got to a point [that I’m in trouble].”
Figures compiled by the commission revealed 684 small businesses in Victoria were receiving payment assistance from their gas retailer by the end of May, with each owing an average of $1441 on their gas accounts.
Almost four times that number were struggling with their electricity bills, with 2488 small business customers owing an average of $1141 each.
But as Victorians tentatively emerge from isolation and start setting foot inside businesses again, the commission is determined to ensure energy retailers are duty bound to offer small businesses a safety net.
It is proposing small businesses struggling with bill shock be given access to flexible payment options and advice on better deals, relief currently available only to households.
“Small business owners have been doing it tough and there is currently no minimum standard of support from retailers if they face stress brought on by energy bills,” Dr Hamill said.
“We have recognised a gap in protections in the energy market for small businesses and Victorians seeking assistance. These proposed reforms offer a safety net for those who need it most,” he said.
Victorians can have their say on the coronavirus reform draft decision on Engage Victoria, with
consultation open until July 13.
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Hanna Mills Turbet is the consumer affairs reporter for The Age.