MANKATO — The COVID-19 pandemic means more people could be struggling with energy bills this winter, and a local nonprofit is helping people apply for assistance.

The Minnesota Valley Action Council’s energy assistance program provides grants for heating and electric bills in south-central Minnesota’s nine counties. It serves about 7,000 households in a typical year.

With COVID still raging and January being the coldest month of the year, the nonprofit is trying to reach out to people who need the program for the first time.

They could include restaurant or gym workers who were laid off or experienced a reduction in work hours late last year, said Sheila Ous, program manager at MVAC.

“I think there are a lot of people who just don’t know about us, so that’s what we’re trying to do is get that word out,” she said.

Outreach is a challenge with the nonprofit’s offices closed during the pandemic. Staff members are instead walking people through the application process over the phone.

Eligibility guidelines depend on the size of households. An individual who earned less than $7,066 over the previous three months qualifies, as does a family of four earning less than $13,589 during the same period.

Using state and federal funding, MVAC acts as the area’s service provider for the program. The assistances ends up being a grant paid directly to the vendors providing energy or electricity.

“It helps defray some of those energy costs and that would free up money for other expenses,” Ous said.

The nonprofit received about 4,500 applications since it opened up in October. It’s a surprisingly low number so far, Ous said, adding that she expects it to rise as more new people learn about it.

Beyond assisting with energy bills, the program also helped replace or repair 61 furnaces totaling about $85,000. For heat grants alone, it awarded $1.6 million to area residents so far.

The program received a $106 million boost from the federal government in November. The state’s temporary commissioner at the Department of Commerce, which works with MVAC and 28 other service providers to administer the program, encouraged Minnesotans to see if they qualify for the program.

“Heating your home is a necessity in Minnesota, and no one’s health or safety should be at risk because they cannot afford to stay warm,” stated temporary Commissioner Grace Arnold in announcing the additional funding.

This month is about the peak time for the program, although the milder winter so far might be keeping energy costs lower than usual. Ous said she expects there to be more need for energy assistance until the annual program ends in May.

“It’s not a new program by any means, but I think it’s going to be new to some folks who have never used the program or needed it in the past,” she said. “Due to COVID they find themselves in a difficult situation.”

For more information on the energy assistance program, call MVAC at 507-345-6822.

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola

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