State to provide unemployment assistance to Potato Company workers
Staff Writer | January 26, 2021 1:00 AM
WARDEN — The Washington State Employment Security Department (ESD) will have a series of emergency orientations Thursday and Friday for those who are jobless as a result of the fire at the Washington Potato Company processing plant in Warden.
According to Todd Wurl, ESD administrator for Central Washington, the sessions will help workers file for unemployment claims, and ESD is in talks with Washington Potato Company “on how best to help.”
Washington Potato Company’s facility in Warden caught fire Thursday evening. The blaze gutted the entire facility.
“It is still smoldering,” said Mike Wright, Grant County Fire District 4 fire chief, Monday. “We no longer have people on site, and have turned the property back over to the landowner.”
Washington Potato Company’s parent company Oregon Potato Company, based in Pasco, would not give details about the fire or the number of employees out of work.
“We’re not giving comments at this time,” a company employee told the Columbia Basin Herald.
Part of the difficulty helping employees is many only speak Spanish, according to Emily Anderson, training manager for SkillSource and the ESD rapid response coordinator for Grant and Adams counties.
“Our normal channels of communication don’t work so well,” she said.
So, the ESD is blanketing Facebook with flyers, Anderson said, and is asking friends and acquaintances to do their best to pass the information along. Anderson said ESD will hold all sessions online and in person in English at 10 a.m. Thursday, with Spanish language sessions at 1:30 p.m. that day, as well as at 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on Friday.
Anderson said ESD is encouraging workers to attend virtually via Zoom, but 30 people can attend each session in the ESD offices at 309 E. Fifth St., Moses Lake, if they can’t attend virtually.
Anyone attending in person will receive a health screening and must wear a mask, Anderson added.
While she could not say how many employees have been affected by the fire, Anderson said “more than 200 people,” full-time and temporary from Best Human Resource Solutions, worked at the facility.
“We’ve supported Washington Potato for over 10 years and had approximately 90 employees working there before the fire,” said Jenna McCaffery, a human resource manager for Best. “We’re trying to assist them as much as possible and fielding phone calls and emails is a way we can assist them best while they’re working from other locations and/or remotely.”
McCaffery said any dislocated worker needing help can contact Best at 509-764-4240 or email her directly at email@example.com.
In addition to ESD and WorkSource, Wurl said Big Bend Community College and OIC (Opportunities Industrialization Center) will participate in the orientations to help now-jobless workers know what their options are for work, retraining and education.
Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington Potato Commission, said the facility, when run “24/7,” was crucial to Washington potato growers, as it was one of the only plants in the state that regularly produces dehydrated potato products from lower grade potatoes farmers cannot sell fresh or for fries, chips, or tots.
Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.