COFFEYVILLE — In 1999 Amazon — just a dot-com hopeful at that point — opened its largest distribution center on an industrial access road just north of Coffeyville. It quickly became the city’s largest employer.
In late September of this year the company announced the facility will close its doors.
The move, which will be finalized in February, will affect about 650 current Amazon employees as well as the many temporary workers the company normally recruits during the holiday season.
Southwire Co., a manufacturer of electrical wires and cables, has said it will close in March, erasing an additional 200 jobs.
John Deere, also in Coffeyville, announced in August that it was laying off more than three dozen.
The Montgomery County Recovery Team estimates the combined closures will result in the loss of $18.6 million in payroll for southeast Kansas employees.
State and local officials, failing to turn Amazon’s head with the largest retention package in Kansas history, have been frenzied in their efforts to forestall the losses that threaten Montgomery County.
As a part of that effort, Coffeyville Community College last month hosted the first of two planned job fairs in the Nellis Hall gymnasium, where affected workers were able to mingle with the roughly 20 Montgomery County employers in attendance.
The next fair, on Dec. 18, will be open to employers across greater southeast Kansas.
IN LIGHT of Allen County’s labor shortage, the mass layoffs in Coffeyville could have material consequences for this area.
For years Montgomery County has attracted a higher percentage of daily commuters than other county in southeast Kansas. Allen County, during the same period, ranked second.
According to Stacia Meek, executive director of the Coffeyville Chamber of Commerce, at least three Allen County employers are scheduled to attend this month’s job fair: B & W Trailer Hitches (Humboldt), Gates Corporation (Iola) and Precision International (Iola).
According to more than one Amazon worker, Gates recruiters have already made appearances on the Amazon campus and ads for the Iola-based company have been appearing in staff break rooms.
And with good reason. The concentration of so many jobs in the hands of so few companies has meant that, when two of the county’s biggest employers close down in a single season, even those workers whose first choice is to remain in Montgomery County are being forced to look elsewhere.
“Just think about it,” said Amber Shipley, a staff management employee at Amazon. “They lost the ammunition plant in Parsons, Southwire is done as of March, Amazon is done pretty much in January and John Deere is laying off — there’s nothing left.”
“I’ve never seen it this bad,” said another Amazon employee making the rounds at the fair. “We’ve always seen something go out, but there has always been something else to come back in.”
Of the many job seekers the Register spoke with, most them were willing to commute to Allen County for work on the condition the pay justify the price of gas and the wear incurred on their vehicle. Many Amazon employees were aware of current co-workers who already make the opposite trek, to Coffeyville from Iola or Yates Center, without complaint.
Living in this area, said Amazon picker Michelle Oerman, you expect to commute. “My husband’s a welder and he drives to Neodesha, which is 45 minutes. I’ve gone as far as Tulsa as well as Bartlesville, Oklahoma.”
Bartlesville is taking note. The Tulsa World reported in October that David Wood, Bartlesville’s Development Authority president, is ramping up recruitment efforts in hopes of attracting displaced workers his way. Bartlesville, another town where job growth is outpacing population, is roughly an hour south of Coffeyville.
Oklahoma, though, would prefer its employees reside — and spend their paychecks — in-state. And so, in an attempt to transform commuters into residents, the city has recently approved a large-scale housing project.
If the job is right and housing available, many at last month’s fair would consider relocating to Allen County, too.
“If I were going to work there,” said Tiara Allred, a former Amazon employee, “because I don’t have a husband or kids, I would move.”
Doug and Liz Smith, a young, married couple, would be willing to move north, too, assuming they could find affordable housing. The operative word is “affordable.” The Smiths both work at Amazon — in maintenance and shipping, respectively — and will witness the loss of their entire household income in the weeks to come. The couple has a one-year old son.
“I’ve done manufacturing most of my life, so I have no problem with that,” said Doug. “I’m looking for whatever’s paying well.” He didn’t see anything promising at last month’s fair and plans to attend the follow-up gathering in December.