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Life after NEMF: Former trucking employees move on to different roles

Debbie Schock found another job. So did Michele Buzzetta.

One year after the sudden closing of New England Motor Freight, a majority of the trucking company’s former employees have moved on, but for many, there is an emptiness inside that still lingers.

“I went from knowing everything about my job to knowing nothing, and I really struggled,” said Schock, a former office manager at the Mahoning Township NEMF terminal, who now works for a logistics company in Bethlehem. “I still don’t feel completely comfortable.”

Buzzetta is now employed at Kresge Services, but the group who became a second family during her 19 years as a corporate customer service representative with NEMF can’t be replaced.

“We were always laughing about something our kids did, we always brought in food for the holidays and decorated,” she said. “I’m in an office by myself now. It’s lonely.”

NEMF, a fixture locally since 1986 after it bought the former Interstate Dress Carriers, emailed employees in February 2019, announcing plans to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy and shut down its operations. At the time, it was ranked as the 17th-largest “less-than-truckload” carrier in the country with revenue over $400 million. According to the state Department of Labor and Industry, it was in the top 25 largest employers in Carbon County for 2018.

NEMF leaders cited the high cost of equipment, severe industry shortage of drivers, increased regulations and the overall risk environment of business as a few of the reasons for the decision. Within a week of the company’s announcement, the local terminal was closed and over 200 employees were on the job hunt or contemplating retirement.

The “Dear John” letter, as many of the former employees refer to it, came as a shock. NEMF had been conducting training exercises up to the day of the announcement.

“I was on vacation and a customer called me to tell me my company went out of business,” driver Max Balliet said.

Linehaul driver Richard McLaughlin had just been congratulated on 30 years with NEMF the previous November.

“They said we look forward to many more years with you,” McLaughlin said. “A few months later, we’re all done. I was going to retire in January 2020, but they forced my hand.”

The end came quick, especially for Christine Serfass, a 25-year corporate customer service manager for NEMF. She cried for days after getting the news, wondering if her life, half of which was spent working for the company, would ever be the same.

“It was the hardest thing I had gone through to that point in my life,” she said.

On the day the Mahoning terminal closed, a group of employees, Serfass included, went to lunch at the Bonnie and Clyde Pub and Grill in Lehighton. Since then, the group, usually around 20 people, has met for dinner every other month, with some of its retired members meeting daily for breakfast.

“We’re a very tight-knit group,” Laurie McEvoy Walck said. “We vowed we would stay in touch, and we certainly have.”

NEMF had a lot of appeal, Buzzetta said, because it was close to home.

“Sure, we could have gone elsewhere for more money,” she said. “But there was no wear and tear on your vehicle going to and from work. When the weather was bad, you didn’t have to worry about a long trip home. It was nice.”

After the closure, many of the former employees attended a job fair held at the Orioles Community Center in Lehighton. A lot of other companies, Schock said, saw what happened and reached out with recruitment efforts. While some of those close to retirement age did go that route, the majority of NEMF’s workforce did find other employment.

“Some of the dock guys had some problems, but as far as I know, everyone who wanted to keep working is working,” Tina Johnson said.

NEMF’s closing was just the tip of the iceberg to an emotional year for its employees.

In September 2019, Mahoning terminal manager David Hillman had passed away at age 65 after a battle with cancer, a disease employees said they pretty much lived through with him.

“He was like a father figure,” Johnson said. “He hired me as a supervisor when no other trucking company in the world would give me that chance.”

By November 2019, however, things started to turn around. All of the NEMF employees were invited to a party on the Saturday before Thanksgiving at the Hudson House in Jersey City, hosted by Nancy Shevell McCartney, daughter of the owner of NEMF, and wife of Paul McCartney. The local contingent rented a limousine bus and made the trip.

“Some people called it a pity party,” Schock said. “I wasn’t even going to go, but over the years we talked with so many people at the other terminals on a daily basis and it was a really nice opportunity to put a face to those voices.”

Serfass said though there was still a lot of bitterness from many of the employees, the event was the chance of a lifetime.

“Paul McCartney was there,” she said. “He walked the crowd and partied with us. I want to believe it was heartfelt. Nancy walked around talked to each of us, asking if we had found a job and how we were doing. I think she felt bad and I think her dad did too.”

Time heals all wounds and, according to Johnson, the night helped serve as closure for her and many of her colleagues.

“I get sad when I drive by and see the terminal empty,” Serfass said. “But I instantly think of the memories I made and the family I made. We had a great run while it lasted. Nobody can take that away.”

New England Motor Freight filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and wound down its operations in 2019. TIMES NEWS FILE PHOTO