The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted more than 180 solid waste collection programs throughout the nation. Hillsborough County worked with Waste Connections to prioritize garbage collection services to maintain public health and safety, a modified collection plan was developed, and a communications plan was developed for residents impacted by the changes.
By Damien Tramel, Marc Rogoff, and Jill Gaffigan

Hillsborough County, FL currently provides residential automated collection services to residential units in its unincorporated area. Residential customers receive twice a week automated curbside garbage services, once a week automated curbside recycling services, and once a week manual curbside yard waste service. In 2013, Hillsborough County awarded franchise agreements to Waste Connections, Inc., Republic Services of Florida, and Waste Management of Tampa. The term of the franchise agreement was for seven years, with a three-year renewal option. The end of the initial seven-year term was September 30, 2020.

From 2013 to 2020, the County recognized a substantial growth surge of approximately 20 percent. As a result, modifications to the franchise agreements were issued in June 2020 to align with the growth rate. In June 2021, the County awarded new franchise agreements to three franchise collectors—FCC Environmental Services, Republic Services of Florida, and Waste Management of Tampa. Under the new franchise agreements, residential collection services commenced on January 31, 2022.

Pandemic Collection Issues
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 and until the middle of June 2020, franchise collectors provided continuous and uninterrupted collection services for garbage, yard waste, and recycling. However, that changed on June 16, 2020, when Waste Connections, Inc. (WCI) notified the County that they had employees who could not perform their collection duties due to COVID-19. At that time, WCI experienced a significant reduction in staff, which greatly impacted their ability to provide collections to residential customers on their designated pick-up day (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: Uncollected roll carts. Figure courtesy of Marc J. Rogoff

Due to the nature of the situation and the number of employees who were unable to report to work, WCI declared a Force Majeure condition (events outside of their control) and advised the County that collection services would be impacted. Hillsborough County staff worked with WCI to prioritize garbage collection services to maintain public health and safety. A modified collection plan was developed, and the County allowed recycling to be commingled with garbage for pickup. Additionally, Hillsborough County worked with its Communications & Digital Department to develop a communications plan for residents impacted by the changes. The messaging channels that were used included the social media platforms of Facebook and Nextdoor, media releases distributed to all local news outlets, and direct communication, which included placing stickers on carts.

The most significant impacts were felt in late June 2020 when routes were not completed and the garbage was not picked up. Recognizing that WCI did not have the drivers needed for all pickup services and knowing that public health and safety were a priority, the decision was made to suspend recycling pickup and focus on collecting garbage and yard waste. The strategy proved successful, and all garbage routes resumed their regular collection schedule.

This was a dynamic situation and one that Hillsborough County and WCI worked through using all available resources. Although we were optimistic that WCI would be fully staffed soon, the uncertainty of COVID-19 exposure could not be guaranteed. As a result, and in an effort to further address the impact the pandemic had on our collection system, WCI applied the following mitigating solutions: job fairs, bringing in employees from affiliated companies, $5,000 retention bonuses, immediate $2 an hour wage increases, and $125 weekly bonuses for supervisory employees. WCI employees eventually returned to work, and regular collection schedules resumed.

Many private and municipal haulers have also initiated similar campaigns to increase their employee retention rate. For example, Casella held a lottery in which it awarded five $1,000 prizes to workers that had registered that they had been vaccinated. Amid staffing shortfalls, cities like Atlanta recently started a program that includes a $500 signing bonus. Others have increased pay and launched in-house, paid commercial driver license training programs to help retain employees. Other communities, including Boston, San Francisco, Tampa, and Tucson, implemented regulations requiring vaccinations or frequent testing for city employees. Given the controversy over masking policies and vaccine hesitancy, it is hard to say how this will impact collection staffing woes.

Solid Waste Collection Contingency Plan
The Solid Waste Management Department (SWMD) had a contingency plan to respond to service interruptions related to hurricanes or other national disasters, including a pandemic. The plan includes prioritizing garbage collection, as it represents a health and sanitary concern. There are five phases to the plan that can be activated when needed:

1. Direct the franchise collector to commingle recycling with the garbage.
2. Discontinue either recycling and/or yard waste collection.
3. Discontinue twice-a-week garbage collection.
4. Use the current franchise collectors to provide collection services in the impacted zone.
5. Activate Emergency Debris Contractors to complete solid waste collection services.

Additionally, the Emergency Debris Contractor was on standby in the event collection services were further impacted by the current pandemic.

Emergency Collection Request for Proposal
To prepare for continued and future service interruptions, the County employed multiple strategies including asking Geosyntec to develop an RFP for an emergency solid waste collection contract to employ independent collection contractors to assist with routes in the event of future collection failures. Geosyntec was charged with developing an emergency RFP under a short timeframe of five days to support the recovery from these unacceptable service conditions. Services included leading the overall strategy, developing a geographic and operational plan, drafting the RFP scope, creating a pricing strategy, identifying and including necessary exhibits, and aligning efforts with the County’s procurement system. The scope of the items that were developed included terms, general obligations of successful bidders, definitions, collection service and equipment specifications, communication, and reporting protocols, among many others.

The Wrap Up
Hillsborough County SWMD monitored the three franchise collectors’ daily absenteeism and other potential solid waste impacts from COVID-19. WCI was the only franchise collector in Hillsborough County that experienced significant service impacts due to the pandemic. WCI’s employees returned from quarantine, and all collection services resumed on schedule. Additionally, Hillsborough County Attorney’s Office worked with WCI to determine an equitable reduction in payment due to loss of services during the period when service was interrupted due to COVID-19.

Lessons Learned
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted more than 180 solid waste collection programs throughout the nation. Many solid waste collection programs have reduced or altered collection schedules.Hillsborough County’s inability to quickly and effectively communicate with customers was a challenge. Communication to residents of the rapidly evolving service interruptions was coordinated using the County website, social media channels, and local news outlets. However, based on feedback from residents and route observations conducted by staff, it appeared that many of our residents did not receive the message. In response, SWMD worked with their Communications & Digital Media department to develop a plan to be able to provide immediate customer notification by requiring the franchise collectors to provide cart stickers on each cart not collected. The stickers directed residents to Hillsborough County’s website and phone number to get more information on the service interruption. Additionally, SWMD is in the process of incorporating a digital application for residents to receive instant updates regarding the solid waste collection and disposal service. This is anticipated to be available to residents by October 2022. | WA

Damien Tramel works for the Hillsborough County Department of Solid Waste in Tampa, FL. He can be reached at (813) 682-4229 or e-mail [email protected].

Marc J. Rogoff, Ph.D., is Senior Consultant, Geosyntec Consultants in Tampa, FL. He can be reached at (813) 810-5547 or e-mail [email protected].

Jill Gaffigan is Senior Consultant for Geosyntec Consultants in Kennesaw, GA. She can be reached at (678) 202-9525 or e-mail [email protected].