Note: This story has been updated to include comment from Polk County and additional information about next steps for any potential legal action.
On Sept. 8, officials in Florida's Polk County were preparing for a potential Category 4 hurricane to hit the state. They were also threatening to sue Republic Services.
Earlier that day, the company's area general manager informed Polk's county manager that his fleet would not be servicing their usual residential routes on Saturday. Because of Labor Day, Friday collections had been bumped to the weekend. Polk County Attorney Michael Craig responded with a letter stating that because Republic hadn't requested a variance, this constituted a violation of their contract. The letter concluded with the promise that "Polk County will pursue all remedies under the Agreement to recoup our damages."
A county press release from that day called Republic's decision "extremely disappointing," mentioning the potential for uncollected waste and recyclables to become hazards during the storm. It announced that Advanced Disposal and FCC Environmental Services — both set to take over the contract for 140,000 households in the county's unincorporated areas next month — would be stepping in to collect as much of this material as possible on Friday and Saturday.
Collection services have resumed in the days since Irma swept through, but tensions are still simmering. Local residents took to social media to express their displeasure. County officials, as reported by The Ledger, are still upset. FCC touted its decision to "do our part as members of this beautiful community" in a press release. Republic remains unapologetic.
"We were getting a lot of concerns from our employees," General Manager Chris Jones told Waste Dive of the days leading up to Republic's decision. "We’re always going to put our customers first, but it’s not going to be at the expense of safety."
The importance of safety before, during and after any hurricane has been emphasized many times in recent weeks. Counties throughout Florida were working diligently to make preparations with this in mind. For some, including Polk neighbors Hillsborough and Pasco, this meant suspending collection services on Saturday, Sept. 9. For Polk, it eventually meant issuing a mandatory evacuation order that morning.
"We’re always going to put our customers first, but it’s not going to be at the expense of safety."
General Manager, Republic Services
Polk County Manager Jim Freeman told Waste Dive that subsequent order didn't change their position. While he recognized the challenge of balancing contract responsibilities with employee safety, Freeman said the weather conditions didn't prevent government or other private crews from working that day.
"That evaucation order related to expected weather that would start on Sunday afternoon and then on Monday," he said. "We all had service in the field on Saturday preparing for the expcted degaration of the weather starting Sunday afternoon."
So far, Polk appears to be the only county engaged in such open dispute with its service provider over how everything played out. Whether this is the result of frayed relations ahead of a contract that is nearing completion or a question of excessive caution depends on who you talk to.
In the Sept. 8 letter, County Attorney Craig cites forecasts of wind speeds safe for large vehicles and said no tropical storm strength winds were expected until Sunday. Republic's Jones said that because of additional activity at the local landfill that week, his 200-person hauling team had already been working long hours and was getting fatigued. As the Irma news grew more dire, many were concerned about having time to prepare their homes or evacuate with their families. Seeing the adjusted forecast on Thursday night sealed the deal.
A smaller crew of volunteers continued to service "Tier 1" customers such as hospitals, shelters, senior centers, utility companies and grocery stores on Saturday. The rest of Republic's hauling team took the day to prepare for Irma however they saw fit.
Meanwhile, Advanced Disposal and FCC fielded their own fleets to service Republic's usual routes on Friday and Saturday morning. Residents were advised of the change, though told to bring their waste and recycling back inside before the storm hit in case collections weren't completed.
According to Tony Emilio, municipal services director for FCC, his company had at least 10 trucks on the road. The vast majority of employees hired for the October contract start volunteered to come in and earn some extra money. Emilio confirmed that this was not an early start to the contract and would be billed separately. His crews ran until about noon on Saturday, at which point everything was buckled down for the impending storm.
"It’s a strenuous time prior to a hurricane. These people have families. They have houses," said Emilio. "Our primary goal is to not have our employees working, give them enough time to where they can take care of their personal things as well."
FCC didn't service their other contract in Orange County that day because no collections were scheduled. Advanced declined to comment on the details of their operations in Polk or other counties over the weekend.
After Irma moved north, leaving power outages throughout the county, initial service resumed on Tuesday, Sept. 12. FCC and Advanced, in coordination with the county, continued to make supplemental collections for any households missed from the prior week and also for normal Monday routes. Republic resumed its normal routes on Tuesday and hasn't been given any indication that their services won't still be needed for the rest of the month.
Whether the county decides to pursue its legal threats may depend on how the contract is completed. When reached by phone on Sept. 14, County Attorney Craig told Waste Dive that action on this was not a high priority. On Sept. 15, Freeman said that any such decision would have to be approved by the Board of County Commissioners. This issue may also come up during scheduled mediations to work out unrelated contract issues.
For FCC and Advanced, this provided an opportunity to bolster their credentials with residents ahead of a fresh start next month. For Republic, the whole episode remains mystifying and unregrettable.
“We stand by our decision to put our employees first," said Jones. "We know that was the right call to make.”