DELPHOS, Ohio -- For nearly 47 years, Elmer Hoffman went to work at the "can factory."
Not only was Mr. Hoffman among New Delphos Manufacturing Co.'s longest-serving employees, he was among the most loyal. He was so loyal that he continued working for New Delphos after he lost the tip of his index finger on his left hand when he was 20 years old.
On Oct. 16, 1990, New Delphos closed its doors, giving its workers a 30-minute notice that the sheet-metal manufacturer best known for making cans would cease to exist.
Mr. Hoffman, who was 17 months from retirement, remembers what management told the factory's employees.
"You could work the rest of the day, but you weren't getting paid," Mr. Hoffman, now 80, recalled. "So what would you do?"
Greg Scherger, another New Delphos employee, remembers that day vividly even though it was 17 years ago. "It was as if the humanity had been taken from the facility," Mr. Scherger said. "If a machine was on, it was left to run. If a paint can was open, it was left with the brush. The humanity was just gone."
Mr. Scherger, now 49, who worked at New Delphos for 11 years in the payroll and sales department, likened the company's abrupt shuttering to a "death or a divorce."
"That facility was different in that it was in a way almost family-oriented, regardless if it was someone from the office or the plant," Mr. Scherger said. "If someone had a personal tragedy, be it a death in the family or a fire, everybody else at the plant would respond and try to help out any way that it could.
"We had our squabbles, but when the chips were down and orders needed to get out the door, everybody would pitch in and make it work," he said.
New Delphos, which had manufactured metal cans and containers since 1898 in Delphos, a small community about 90 miles southwest of Toledo straddling the Allen County-Van Wert County line, rapidly changed in its final years after F. Cruden Cole, grandson of the plant's founder, sold out to James P. Flynn of St. Louis in a leveraged buyout.
After the unexpected closing, New Delphos employees looked to U.S. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum for help. Mr. Metzenbaum responded to a letter written by Mr. Scherger, directing him to the Maurice and Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic Social Justice in Detroit.
Mr. Metzenbaum was the author of the federal WARN Act, which requires most businesses to give a 60-day notice to workers before mass layoffs or plant closings. The Sugar Law Center emerged as a leading advocate for workers on the federal policy.
"We did the best we could to make the best out of a bad situation. We were really groping in the dark until we met the Sugar Law folks," Mr. Scherger said.
During a lengthy legal struggle, workers were told that New Delphos Manufacturing had no assets and would not be able to pay what was owed under the WARN Act.
More than three years after the plant closed, an agreement was reached with the workers in which the company would settle their WARN Act claims by using money from the company's overfunded pension fund.
The settlement offered little consolation to workers such as Elmer Hoffman, who struggled to find work in the months and years after New Delphos closed.
"Hell, I worked there all my life," Mr. Hoffman said. "When you are about 65, nobody wants you."
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