TUMWATER - For almost a day, the nearly 600 employees at a Tumwater call center weren't sure where they would work or when they'd work again.
As fire investigators combed through the burned-out Affiliated Computer Services building off Tumwater Boulevard Southwest on Monday morning, call center agents showed up to see the damage first-hand. Some shared with each other how they had found out about the blaze, while others noted the fire’s untimely occurrence just before the holidays and asked what it would mean for their paychecks and livelihoods.
ACS began addressing those questions early Monday, said general manager Horace Martin.
The 500 agents and 85 other employees who work out of the building will have the option to work at a satellite center in Federal Way. That could last several weeks until a new center, which was already under development before the fire, opens in Hawks Prairie, Martin said.
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The company will consider shuttling displaced workers to the Federal Way site in the meantime, Martin added.
“We’ll do anything to be back in business and not lose any jobs,” Martin said.
The new, 39,000-square-foot center at 8535 Commerce Place N.E. is expected to open in December.
Workers may also be able to collect unemployment, a spokeswoman for the Employment Security Department said Monday.
While unemployment benefits depend on many factors, including wage and hour requirements, it may be determined “unreasonable” for individuals to travel to Federal Way for work, spokeswoman Sheryl Hutchison said.
She said workers should apply for unemployment immediately to get a quick determination.
ACS worker Gene Pardee, 64, said he filed for unemployment soon after hearing about the fire.
“I went ahead and applied just as a proactive move,” he said.
Pardee, who lives near Carlyon Beach, said that despite bills piling up, it wouldn’t be practical for him to commute to Federal Way for work unless there was some sort of arrangement, like the proposed shuttle service.
Workers at the call center smelled “electrical-type smoke” and heard alarms go off just before evacuating the burning building Sunday night, according to Tumwater fire officials.
Yellow tape separated onlookers Monday morning from broken windows and the collapsed roof of the building as investigators worked throughout the day to determine the cause and assess damage.
ACS is a Xerox company that provides customer care, business process, and information technology services.
As of Monday afternoon, the cause of the fire had yet to be determined, Tumwater fire Chief John Carpenter said.
Fire crews first responded to a fire alarm just after 9 p.m. Sunday and upon arrival saw black smoke billowing from the building’s roof. After assessing the fire and confirming that all 75 workers were safely evacuated, crews decided to trap the fire at the cross section of the H-shaped building, Carpenter said.
“All in all, the west side of the building is a total loss,” Carpenter said.
The east wing suffered smoke and water damage but is intact. The functionality of the structure is still unknown.
Carpenter said 45 firefighters from Tumwater and surrounding departments helped fight the “stubborn fire,” which roared above a drop-down ceiling, making it tough to directly fight. The fire was declared under control at midnight, but crews remained into the morning hours fighting hot spots and flare-ups.