The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission plans to investigate how Waste Management deployed replacement drivers during the recent garbage strike.

Share story

The state’s utility commission is investigating whether Waste Management ignored rural customers during the recent trash strike in favor of customers in cities that were threatening hefty fines for missed pickups.

The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission said Friday it will investigate how the company deployed replacement drivers it hired to collect garbage after its recycle- and garbage-truck drivers walked off the job July 25.

In a letter to the company, the commission said Waste Management appeared to give short shrift to customers in unincorporated King and Snohomish counties, and it took longer to resume service than it had promised.

The company had filed plans with the commission in June describing how it would provide service in the event of a strike. It updated the commission on those plans as the strike unfolded, said commission spokeswoman Amanda Maxwell.

But news reports and complaints from about 20 customers indicate the company did not follow those plans, and “it did look like what they said they were doing did not happen,” Maxwell said.

The commission regulates waste-company rates and services in areas where they do not directly contract with municipalities. It can fine companies as much as $1,000 for violations, and it can define a violation broadly or narrowly, Maxwell said. That raises the possibility of significant fines if it defines a violation as a missed collection at a single household, she said.

Waste Management’s spokeswoman said Friday the company was busy planning its collection routes for Saturday and could not yet address the investigation.

The strike, which affected about 220,000 customers in King and Snohomish counties, ended Thursday when the company’s recycle drivers, represented by Teamsters Local 117, approved a six-year contract with Waste Management. Garbage-truck drivers of Teamsters Local 174 had joined the strike in solidarity and resumed work Thursday.

Teamsters’ leadership credited local mayors with helping to end the strike by publicly announcing plans to document and fine the company for missed collections. Collectively, the fines could have reached about $3 million a day.

The commission said it expects the company to discuss its strike-response strategy and provide data at a hearing Thursday.

Customers interested in providing input for the hearing can call the commission’s Consumer Affairs help line at 1-888-333-9882.

John Borga, a retired teacher who lives outside Brier in Snohomish County, said he complained to the commission when Waste Management refused to credit him for missed service, even though his garbage isn’t now scheduled for pickup until next week.

“They’re in a position where you pretty much have to pay them or they won’t pick up,” said Borga. He said he pays $27.69 a month for garbage, recycling and yard-waste collection, and has to pay three months in advance.

Borga said his biggest concern was Waste Management was using his money to pay replacement drivers, and refusing him a refund even though its contract with the commission does not allow it to miss collections due to labor actions.

On Wednesday, the company filed new contract language with the commission that would allow it to miss pickups without penalty in the event of a labor action. The company asked that the language apply retroactively, to June 6.

The commission hasn’t decided whether to agree to that, Maxwell said. It initially had asked the company to address the issue in 2010, after the last strike, and issued an advisory on the matter in May. It expects to take up the issue again in connection with its investigation, Maxwell said.

Seattle Times staff reporter Lynn Thompson contributed to this report.

Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508 or On Twitter @susankelleher.