MILTON-FREEWATER — Sykes Enterprises Inc., the community’s third-largest employer, will close its customer call center in December and transition its reportedly more than 200 employees to work-from-home positions, officials said.
Employees at the computer software call center were notified one week ago. The last day for the operation will be Dec. 11, said Andrea Burnett Thomas, spokeswoman for the Florida-based technical support and customer service operation.
Though not the first time the Milton-Freewater facility has been slated for closure, this time will not likely come with a last-minute save as has been the case when contracts with partner firms expired, Burnett Thomas said. That means even if the jobs continue on an at-home basis, the building itself — a major piece in the largest incentive package ever brokered by the city of Milton-Freewater when Sykes opened in 1999 — has an uncertain future.
Burnett Thomas said Sykes does not release the number of employees it has per location. But various reports have put the current number around 240 workers. How many of those are customer-service positions versus facilities, management or other non-call-related jobs was not disclosed.
Nevertheless, Burnett Thomas said positions will be available for all employees because of Sykes’ acquisition two years ago of work-at-home virtual contact center Alpine Access.
That company, she said, has several accounts for which the trained staff throughout the Milton-Freewater and the Walla Walla Valley are equipped to serve.
“Our business sees a lot of change, and so we’re constantly adapting to that change,” she said via telephone from Tampa this morning. “That’s what you’re seeing now.”
She said certain requirements will be in place for those who opt to stay with the company and work from home. Among them is a quiet space in which to work.
“Can you imagine calling somewhere for customer support and hearing a dog barking in the background?” she said.
Whether some employees will be transitioned earlier out of the customer service center on the hill at 151 Sykes Blvd. was not known this morning.
“It probably depends on the needs of the various clients,” she said.
While the work-from-home option may be good for employees, the business model won’t work for some companies, she added.
“At-home is not right for everybody, but for some of our clients it’s a perfect fit,” Burnett Thomas said. “Just like (overseas) and (domestic) — it will never fit everyone. This just allows us one more option.”
Consequently, the future of the property is also not known.
Milton-Freewater City Manager Linda Hall, who was notified of the change by the company earlier this week, said the business has pursued a variety of options in how it transitions in other communities. In some places, it may have sold the property. In others, they’ve leased out the properties or have continued holding onto them.
“We have a huge vested interest in the future of that building,” Hall said. “I’ll be in touch with them.”
The city brokered a more than $5 million incentive package to bring Sykes to town in 1999.
The Urban Renewal Agency gave the company $2.5 million in cash. Plus the city had a $2.2 million loan on to be paid off on the building. Another $1 million in incentives including the value of 20 acres the city bought and gave to Sykes, plus money from state and regional resources. Among that, the Port of Walla Walla raised $200,000 in private donations, including a $10,000 contribution from the Union-Bulletin.
“That location and the facility’s attributes have a great deal of potential,” Hall said. She said the soon-to-be-established new American Viticulture Area called The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater could help shape future development in the community, especially with an underused, high-profile building at a gateway into the community.
Either way, Hall said the community will survive the transition.
“If we have a claim to fame ... we’re survivors here,” she said. “So it’s OK for us to momentarily lick our wounds. We simply keep looking for the next opportunity.”
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8321.