Bureaucrats' Bad Dream : Fire Cuts Off 500 State Workers From Computers

Times Staff Writer

About 500 workers from six state agencies, displaced by a Wilshire District fire last month, have been forced to operate out of their own homes and in sparsely furnished temporary headquarters in a predicament that has become a bureaucrat's bad dream.

Officials of state agencies that regulate and monitor banking, insurance and other industries--both regionally and statewide--said that at least some of their duties have been significantly disrupted.

"We still don't have access to our computers and our records," said David Scott, deputy superintendent of banks for the state Banking Department. "In a lot of ways, we would have been better off if the whole building had burned down to the ground."

Only one office, belonging to the state Department of Savings and Loan, was damaged by the fire March 2 on the 15th floor of the 19-story CNA Building at 600 S. Commonwealth Ave. The fire forced five other agencies to relocate--the Office of Emergency Services and the departments of Insurance, Commerce, Corporations and Banking.

But on April 6, officials discovered airborne asbestos fibers in the building during the cleanup and ordered all state office workers to leave the building. They also forbade state workers from entering the building to retrieve most of their computer records, filing systems, desks, telephones and other office equipment.

Since then, one department has moved several times, leaving some workers confused about where their mail should be sent. All are still uncertain when, if ever, they will be allowed to return to their old offices.

"The biggest problem is the frustration of not having a definite answer," Scott said. "It's out of our control."

Anne Garbeff, a spokeswoman for the Department of General Services, said most of the displaced state office workers will not be allowed to re-enter the building until Cal/OSHA completes its tests for asbestos. She could not say, however, when those tests would end.

Garbeff said that although her department is concerned about the disruption of services, the safety of workers is "paramount." Initial results of the tests in the building, she added, show that "the levels do not exceed any exposure standards."

That news may be of little consolation to workers at the Department of Savings and Loan, who have already embarked on a long odyssey since the fire.

Keep Moving

Immediately after the fire, department employees were relocated to the ninth floor of the CNA Building, only to be told a few weeks later that they would have to move again, Davis said.

The department's latest address is the ninth floor of a Wilshire Boulevard high-rise. But it will soon move to another office in an adjacent building. Even that move will be temporary, however, since the department will probably move to the Ronald Reagan State Office Building under construction downtown.

"We're kind of orphans right now," Davis said. "It's not enjoyable being an orphan, but we're managing."

Workers for the Department of Corporations have it even worse--they have been working most of the day in their own homes and picking up their mail and messages at the Department of Savings and Loan's temporary headquarters.

"You'd think that working out of your office is fun, but I hate it," said one Department of Corporations worker as he entered his temporary headquarters, a single room down the hall from the Department of Savings and Loan. The spacious room is unfurnished except for a table and a few scattered boxes that serve as filing cabinets.

A Department of Corporations official in Sacramento said there is no way for the public to telephone its Los Angeles-based workers who regulate escrow companies. The Sacramento headquarters has no experts of its own in that area and no one has been brought up from Los Angeles on a temporary basis to field calls.

Work Is Slowed

Scott said that the State Banking Department's displacement has slowed down the approval of new banks and branch locations in the Los Angeles area. And applications filed with the department just before the fire are unretrievable. "We tell people, 'Your application is in there someplace covered with asbestos, send us another one,' " he said.

The Banking Department has 20 workers in yet another temporary office--where they have desks and telephones but no computers--and 50 field examiners who are discouraged from coming into the office, Scott said.

"We've been trying to keep them out in the field because there's no room here," Scott said. The examiners do most of their work at home and are starting to accumulate paper work which will have to be stored later in the still-inaccessible computer. Scott said the Banking Department has "a few tons" of records in the CNA Building.

Arthur Blech, owner of the building, said he doesn't understand why the state workers left. Several other private tenants chose to remain in the building, he said. He added that a local representative of Gov. George Deukmejian who left the building has since returned.

"I have told the state on several occasions that this action is not justified," Blech said. He said a state-licensed industrial hygienist had been checking the building for asbestos since January because the building is slated to become a Los Angeles County Courthouse.

Blech said the state has not terminated its contract with the building, but it hasn't paid its rent either.

"I'm going to have to wait patiently," he said. "Obviously, it's a financial disadvantage for me."

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