A personnel shake-up at a Duke Energy tree-trimming subcontractor came at the worst possible time for residents of the Tampa Bay-area.
Weeks before Hurricane Irma, Asplundh Tree Expert Co., a “vegetation management” vendor fired its Florida chief. Now the company is accusing him of using his experience — in violation of a noncompete clause — to siphon off dozens of employees to work for a competitor.
Those defections came at a bad time for Asplundh, leaving it short-handed as they faced fallen trees and debris all over the region from Irma.
Asplundh — Swedish for “grove of aspen trees” — is a family-owned vegetation-management firm that employs about 35,000 people. The 90-year-old Pennsylvania-based company offers tree trimming and other infrastructure services to utilities across U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Among Asplundh’s Florida clients are Duke Energy and Florida Power & Light.
In response to Irma’s path across Florida, the company and its subsidiaries announced it had deployed more than 4,700 workers to Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee to help utilities restore power.
Nevertheless, about three weeks before Irma made landfall — creating chaos with fallen trees and power outages — Asplundh fired Juan Angel Garza, the 43-year-old Valrico resident who for six years had overseen the company’s Florida operations. Garza joined Asplundh in 1998, moving into the leadership role in 2011, where he stayed until fired August 18.
According to Asplundh, the company fired Garza for “violating [its] employee hiring standards.”
However, a suit filed Oct. 20 in Hillsborough County Circuit Court says soon after Garza left, the ex-employee developed a “scheme” to “punish” the company — luring employees to competitor Lewis Tree Service (another Duke Energy vendor) despite having signed a non-compete agreement with Asplundh. Lewis Tree Service, based in West Henrietta, New York, is another “vegetation management” company employing roughly 4,000 people in the U.S. and Canada.
Asplundh is accusing Garza of convincing as many as 68 employees to defect in late September and early October, mostly by falsely telling them Asplundh would soon lay them off by way of contract non-renewals.
Asplundh is asking the court to prohibit Garza from coordinating any further defections and force him to pay for damages he allegedly caused as a Lewis consultant.
An Oct. 9 Tampa Bay Times article found that last year Duke Energy approved a 20 percent reduction in its annual tree-trimming budget for Pinellas and Pasco counties — a drop of $2 million, from $9 million to $7.4 million. The article suggests those cuts may have contributed to Irma’s widespread power outages, where more than 520,000 customers lost electricity from fallen trees and untrimmed branches knocking down power lines.
Asplundh also alleges Garza told an Asplundh employee that if the company hired him as a “recruiting consultant,” he would convince the employees who defected to return.