Thousands of layoffs by DHL, ABX Air hit Wilmington, Ohio

As hard times go, this is about as hard as it gets. The single-biggest employer in these parts is laying off about 7,500 men and women.

In a town of fewer than 13,000 people. In the midst of the worst financial crisis in generations.

"It's going to test us," says Mayor David Raizk. "The numbers are frightening."

Those numbers came in a Nov. 10 announcement by Deutsche Post World Net, the German owner of package-delivery company DHL. After investing five years and nearly $9 billion, DHL is abandoning its ill-starred effort to compete in the United States with FedEx and UPS. Winding down its U.S. business will eliminate 9,500 DHL positions around the country plus thousands more here at the company's local partner, ABX Air.

DHL, which has long struggled in the U.S., said in May that ABX would likely lose business that supported thousands of workers. But the global financial crisis magnified shareholder pressure on DHL's German owner and accelerated the erosion at the No. 3 company in a three-company market, triggering DHL's exodus. Exposure to bankrupt investment bank Lehman Bros. blew a $450 million hole in third-quarter earnings at the German giant's banking subsidiary, while DHL's customers grew tightfisted amid the spreading economic malaise.

Now, the rise in unemployment happening across the USA is appearing here in concentrated form. One of every three Wilmington households will be hurt by DHL's exit. From pilots to avionics technicians to package handlers, waves of people in several counties are losing their paychecks in a place and at a time when well-paying jobs are as precious as diamonds. And, in rural Ohio, about as easy to find.

The sad truth is there's no way the local economy can sprout paychecks for all who will need them. Some people who've called this solid, unremarkable town home their entire lives will be forced to leave. Others will stay but will find getting by a whole lot harder. "I really don't want to (leave) unless I have to," says pilot Bill Kocher, 47. "I was born and raised here. I like the town. I like the school my daughter's in. I like the church we go to."

It hasn't gone unnoticed here that as times got hard in other industries, people with more money and better connections lined up in Washington, D.C., with their well-manicured hands out. Wilmington received an emergency $3.8 million Labor Department grant to help retrain the newly jobless. But no one here expects Uncle Sam to ride to the rescue.

This community's self-image is one of straightforward, hardworking Midwesterners, the sort of people who continue to produce for the boss even after the boss says he's putting them on the street. Since learning that its contract with DHL would be ending, ABX has delivered 99% of its packages on time, says ABX spokeswoman Beth Huber.

Hardest hit among the affected workers will likely be those in the package-sorting operation, most of whom don't have a college degree. The "sort" jobs pay well, about $16 an hour, and offer good health insurance benefits.

Wilmington native Chris Haidet, 45, went to work at ABX straight out of high school 27 years ago. He remembers the excitement in town when the first McDonald's opened and the thrill of the company's first giant DC-8 cargo jet. "You could walk under the airplane," he says. "People were in awe."

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