Officials Vow to Help Durango Employees Company to Close Plant in St. Marys

Article excerpt

Byline: Gordon Jackson, Times-Union staff writer

KINGSLAND -- Local, state and federal officials promised to react quickly to provide both help and answers for the nearly 900 Durango-Georgia Paper Co. employees who learned Thursday the plant will close in 60 days.

"What we're looking for is the human element," Camden County Commission Chairman Steve Berry said yesterday at a meeting of roughly 75 people in the county annex building. "There's a whole assortment of problems we're going to have to deal with."

The quest for some answers may be difficult, many in the crowd said, because Durango officials were not at the meeting and haven't answered even the most basic questions, such as if employees will get severance pay, as required in their union contracts.

Steve Hernandez, a machinists union official, said Durango has described the layoffs as "indefinite," though he said everyone knows they are permanent.

"I anticipate we will have a problem with them," Hernandez said. "The No. 1 concern is severance pay. At this point we can't get a straight answer from them. What we're concerned about is the play on words here."

Emily DeRocco, assistant secretary of labor for employment and training administration, called from her Washington office and promised her agency "will help every way it can." The conversation was played on a speaker phone so the audience could ask questions.

"I guarantee we will respond very quickly," DeRocco said. She also promised to get clarification about the indefinite layoff status of the workers.

Durango's public statement about the St. Marys closure was limited to a two-paragraph release yesterday announcing plans to shut down the former Gilman Paper Co., one of Camden County's largest employers since 1941. Durango bought the plant for an undisclosed price in December 1999.

"The reason for the closure is the low return on the investment at this mill," company spokesman Jim Johnson's statement said.

Johnson said the company improved productivity and reduced production costs, but "the current results have been insufficient to justify further investment in the mill, as planned, to ensure its viability."

The statement also blamed economic uncertainty worldwide and the turbulence of financial markets as influences leading to the decision.

Berry said he will contact Durango's management and ask them to attend a public meeting to answer questions from workers, elected officials and others in the community.

Berry also suggested the creation of a task force to meet the needs of the soon-to-be former Durango employees throughout the region, including an estimated 40 workers who are Florida residents.

State labor department officials from Georgia and Florida said they will create a rapid response center as early as next week to help employees with resume writing, credit counseling and contacting officials at other local labor departments. …