Seventeen barrels and bags of yard waste sat outside Jim Midolo’s Lawrence home on Monday, ready for crews to collect and leave his freshly spruced up lawn neat and tidy.
Two days later, the pile was still there. Republic Services, the city’s new waste hauler, had failed to show up. Again.
“I actually called Republic Services [Tuesday] morning at 7:30, and told them nothing got picked up. And they said, ‘OK, we’ll open a ticket,’ ” Midolo said. “Did they ever show up? No.”
The waste was finally collected Wednesday morning, Midolo said, when the city’s Department of Public Works sent its own crews to those neighborhoods where Republic has not picked up the trash.
The stinky situation in Lawrence is playing out in other communities around Greater Boston, after the Arizona-based Fortune 500 company recently acquired their local waste contractor and threw trash collection schedules into chaos.
Now, after weeks of missed pickups outside houses and public buildings alike, inaccurate or unhelpful information from Republic, and fury among residents, town officials are threatening to cancel their contracts and levy six-figure fines on Republic.
“We have given Republic enough time to address the issue, but the situation persists. This is unacceptable and inexcusable,” Lawrence Mayor Brian A. DePeña said in a press release announcing the city’s intention to sanction the company. The city pays Republic about $4 million a year for trash, recycling, and yard waste pickup.
In May, Republic Services acquired JRM Hauling and Recycling of Massachusetts, and promised a “seamless” transition as it absorbed JRM’s service areas. But when Republic formally took over operations in early October, it took just hours for complaints from Massachusetts residents to start pouring in.
Ed Thomas, 65, who has lived in Reading for decades, said that JRM would occasionally miss the odd pickup day, but that he hasn’t seen a Republic truck outside his house in weeks. Instead, it’s the local rodents that appear to be the most interested in the growing pile of trash along his street, as evidenced by busted bags and refuse spilled onto the road.
“Our town looks like a trash yard, everyone’s garbage is out,” Thomas said. “Why didn’t they leave things running the way they were? They just completely dropped the ball.”
In an e-mailed statement, Republic said it has “been in constant communication with the Town of Reading” and plans to be back on schedule by the end of the week. The company did not specify a reason for the failures.
Republic did not respond to multiple calls and e-mails seeking an explanation for the disruptions or a response to the communities’ threats to cancel contracts.
Republic is one of the country’s largest waste management firms, with nearly 40,000 employees and $11 billion in revenue last year, according to its annual report. Its website lists 430 Massachusetts locations served. The state attorney general’s office has received 115 complaints about Republic since 2016, 17 this year. Since 2016, the office received four complaints about JRM.
In Lawrence, city officials said Wednesday that they spent weeks trying to get Republic Services to comply with its existing contract and provide timely removal of curbside waste. DePeña said in a statement that he tried to arrange an emergency meeting with Republic about the waste pickup issues, but on Tuesday, company managers told him that “they were out of the region.”
The most recent meeting DePeña had with officials from Republic Services was about two weeks ago, and during that session, company officials “promised that they were going to catch up,” Jhovanny Martes, DePeña’s chief of staff, said Wednesday. He said Republic claimed it was dealing with a lack of staffing, but would improve services quickly, Martes said.
“People want answers, but we don’t have answers from Republic,” Martes said. “It is challenging for us to provide accurate answers to constituents.”
DePeña and other city officials are determining what sanctions, including fines, the city should impose. Lawrence is also working with other communities where Republic isn’t picking up the trash, including Reading, Martes said.
In Reading, Town Manager Fidel Maltez joined DPW crews himself on Monday, clad in a neon safety vest, hoisting garbage bags and talking to residents.
In a statement Monday, Maltez gave Republic an ultimatum: pick up the trash on time by Friday or the town will terminate its contract. As of Wednesday, Reading had received more than 1,000 complaints, according to business administrator Jayne Wellman.
“We will continue to press for performance satisfaction and relief under the terms of the contract,” Matlez said in the statement, “or we will find a new contractor that can meet the sanitation needs of the community.”
Shawn Brandt, chair of the Reading School Committee, confirmed that at least two scheduled pickups by Republic from Wood End Elementary School were missed. Wellman added that trash piled up outside public buildings downtown.
North Reading, meanwhile, sent Republic a notice of breach of contract Tuesday, giving the company 10 days to fulfill its pickup responsibilities or the town may terminate the agreement.
The North Reading notice also claimed Republic owes the town more than $200,000 in damages, due to a clause in its contract requiring the company to pay $100 for any failure to collect trash or recycling. Since Oct. 4, the first collection day, North Reading residents have filed more than 2,000 complaints.
Michael Gilleberto, North Reading town administrator, said his community did not see more than one or two trucks in town during Republic’s first week in charge, although its contract stipulates that 11 trucks must be supplied on pickup day.
Gilleberto said he has tried repeatedly to establish a new pickup plan with Republic, but said the company would then send trucks to the wrong part of town or, at times, fail to show up entirely.
“We had been told that their customer service center was going to be open on Saturday morning for folks to call, and they were not,” he said. “So when folks were trying to call at our suggestion, they were greeted with the office not being open.”
Gilleberto said there has been some progress, but said, “I cannot say that something permanent is starting to form” in terms of a schedule.
Officials from North Reading and Reading also said Republic has been consistently unpredictable and difficult to reach.
The phone number Republic gave customers to voice questions or complaints rings a call center in Texas. There, an apologetic Republic employee gave the Globe two phone numbers she thought might lead to its Massachusetts offices. The first was for another location in Texas; the second had been disconnected.
It is not yet clear what is causing the missed pickups. Among residents and officials, rumors of short-staffing, equipment failure, and issues relating to the employee union are circulating.
Wellman said she is confident that Reading’s trash will be picked up by Friday, but not necessarily by Republic.
Dozens of Reading employees worked overtime to cover regular pickup routes Monday and Tuesday, while a handful of Republic trucks attempted to tackle the backlog from the previous week, Wellman said.
Wellman said the town will charge any additional labor costs to Republic, emphasizing that the burden would not land on taxpayers.
Wellman said crews on Tuesday had to cut their routes short as the trucks became overloaded with trash. “The problem compounds over time,” she said.
“It’s getting cleaned up, which is the good news,” Wellman said. “They’ve [Republic] been put on notice. And we continue to try to work with them, but it’s been very challenging communication-wise as well.”
Correction, Oct. 20, 2022: An earlier version of this story misstated how many cities and towns Republic Services serves in Massachusetts.