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Their plant idled, Toyota workers work on community volunteer projects

Because of the economic and automotive downturn, Toyota's sprawling factory in Georgetown has been forced to idle its lines this week, but its employees are anything but idle.

About 125 workers have set aside their high-tech tools in favor of more rudimentary ones, including paintbrushes (no spray jets) and weed whackers and have fanned out to help 17 Kentucky non-profits this week.

"We were thrilled when we got picked to come out here," Kathy Doth said as she and Sue Phelps pruned rosebushes at the University of Kentucky Arboretum on Tuesday.

Throughout the week, employees will help out in a variety of places, including schools near Toyota's plant in Scott County and the Louisville Zoo.

Workers are being paid in full for the volunteer time. When Toyota began periodically idling its lines in December due to lower sales, the company offered employees three options: They could come to work for full pay and train or work on plant improvements; take a vacation day; or take an unpaid day off.

The plant has had volunteer days in the past, but spokesman Rick Hesterberg said the idea came up recently to have an entire volunteer week to coincide with the down time.

Mike Hellard, an 18-year employee working in the plastics department, spent Tuesday at Frankfort's Simon House, a shelter for women and children.

He normally spends his days painting bumpers — "What the robots don't get, we take care of," he said — but on Tuesday, he and his team painted walls and repaired furniture.

"I would have loved to have been here all week," he said. He has to return to the plant on Wednesday for training classes for the rest of the week.

Factory leaders have used the time as an opportunity to enhance training and make assembly-line improvements — adopting the famous Toyota kaizen model of "continuous improvement."

And although the absence of the hum of the plant machinery might make the factory itself more peaceful, Bernita Russell found a pretty peaceful place at the Arboretum on Tuesday.

"If I wasn't getting paid, I wouldn't mind coming out here to work," Russell said. "It's a good way to relieve your frustrations."