07.27.18

Kilmer-backed legislation would let servicemembers out of contracts before deployment

Shortly after Jill Jones and her husband, Jordan, moved back to the United States from an overseas duty station a few years ago, her application for an automobile loan was denied because of her credit score.  

"My score was really low, so I pulled it up and I was like 'Oh my gosh,' " Jones said.

When she checked her credit score report, she discovered her number was being dragged down as the result of two reports for unpaid balances on service contracts she'd canceled before she and her husband, who is currently a first class petty officer in the Navy, relocated to the Bahamas on orders.

At the time, Jones had recently separated from the Navy herself, leaving at the rank of a second class petty officer. 

Before the move, Jones said she had gone through the routine of canceling contracts for services they would no longer be able to use once they moved outside the country, including their cell phone service with Verizon Wireless and their cable provider in California. 

Jones had to pay $300 to terminate their cell phone plan early and pay one last month of service to their cable provider. 

"I don't remember if my husband gave them proof of orders, but we let them know well ahead of time," she said. "They said they would take care of it for us, and that they were so sorry to be losing us, and thank you for your service and all of that."

Fast forward a few years, Jones discovered that both companies had reported her for failing to pay outstanding balances on her account for canceling those contracts early. 

Years later, she's still trying to dispute those charges. 

Last spring, Washington Rep. Derek Kilmer co-sponsored a bipartisan piece of legislation with Rep. Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania that would protect other military families from similar penalties. 

"We're constantly looking for ways to make sure we have the back of military families," Kilmer said. "If you serve our country, we should have your back when you deploy. It's pretty simple. Show your orders, and you should be able to cancel."

The bill would allow soon-to-be-deployed servicemembers to terminate their telephone, internet, cable or satellite television contracts without any penalties if they receive orders to relocate for more than 90 days to an area that does not support such services.

After canceling a contract, servicemembers would be responsible for returning any provider-owned equipment, such as loaned cable boxes or wireless internet routers, no later than 10 days after service is disconnected. 

After that, they would bear no further financial responsibility to the service company other than any outstanding bills that need to be paid for services already rendered. 

The protections would extend to any uniformed military personnel who has orders to deploy or move to a new duty station, whether they're active duty, in the reserves or a member of the National Guard. 

"They should be able to spend their last few days with family and friends, not on hold with the cable company to cancel their contract," Kilmer said. 

The House of Representatives voted to pass the legislation on Tuesday. The Senate's companion version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell, is under review by the Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

Kilmer foresees the bill making it through the legislative process without much difficulty. 

"There was no opposition to it," Kilmer sad. "It's a great sign that people supported it and I think it's got a great shot."

Existing consumer protections

If passed, the bill would amend the existing federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which was enacted in 2003 and has been amended since to add further protections for military personnel.

Under the law, active duty personnel can cancel automobile leases if they will deploy for more than 180 days, cell phone contracts if they have orders to relocate somewhere without service for more than 90 days, or rental agreements if they have orders for a permanent change of station or will deploy for more than 90 days. 

Failing to adhere to the law is classified as a misdemeanor that would be punishable by fines. If Kilmer's bill passes through the Senate and is signed into law, it would hold telephone, television and internet providers to the same regulations. 

MORE: Kilmer bill helps federal workers who started in temporary role

Earlier this year, the Legislature unanimously voted to pass a similar bill that allows active-duty, reserve and National Guard personnel to cancel their cell phone, internet, subscription television, satellite radio and gym membership contracts without penalty after receiving orders to deploy or move to a new duty station.

Upon return, servicemembers are able to resume their prior service contracts at rates and conditions comparable to or better than what they previously had. 

Those protections came into effect on June 5, after Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill into law at the end of March.

Washington is among a few states that have codified further consumer protections for servicemembers beyond the stipulations in federal law. Arizona, Indiana, Minnesota, New York and Oregon are among those that have also passed state-level extensions of federal protections, according to the state Attorney General's Office.

With the proposal of federal legislation, Kilmer wanted to extend these types of protections to all servicemembers, regardless of which state they're located. 

"There's been action in some states, but it's kind of varied from state to state," Kilmer said. "It makes sense to provide protections like this across the nation."

Certain service companies, including many of the providers in Kitsap County, already have provisions in their contracts for servicemembers to be able to cancel their contracts without penalty regardless of which state they live in, but that's not always the case, as Jill Jones discovered. 

CenturyLink spokeswoman Linda Johnson said the company's current cancellation policy already allows for military personnel to cancel their services without penalty if they are required to relocate for deployment or temporary duty. 

While deployed, CenturyLink will retain their phone number for up to 39 months and re-establish their service with the same phone number after they return.

Comcast spokesman Andy Colley said that the company already has a policy that allows military personnel to cancel the cable, internet and home phone contracts without penalty before deployment. 

"Any military professional who is deployed can either come into an Xfinity retail store or call Xfinity Customer service and we will cancel their service and waive the fees," Colley said. 


By:  Julianne Stanford
Source: Kitsap Sun