The slowdown in the automotive industry struck Georgetown's Toyota plant on Tuesday, as the company announced sweeping changes, including announcing plans to cut more than 250 temporary assembly line employees, to help cope with lower sales.
Other changes include:
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■ Slowing the second assembly line, which produces Camrys, Camry hybrids and the new Venza crossover. That slower speed is what's leading to some of the cuts, since fewer workers will be needed. The slowdown begins Jan. 5 and will continue indefinitely.
■ Stopping production of the Solara convertible for four months because of high inventories. With no Solaras being built, Toyota can maintain production levels of the Venza despite the slower line.
■ Stopping production at the plant and all other North American plants, except one in Mexico, on Dec. 22 and 23. Employees will be provided non-production work or can use vacation or take unpaid leave.
The changes come as Toyota deals with an accelerating drop in sales of the Camry. Sales are down just 3.6 percent domestically this year compared to last, but sales were off 12.8 percent in October.
Toyota is not cutting its full-time work force of around 7,000, choosing to cut from the group of 500 temporaries that it has long said is used to insulate its full-timers.
The workers will be phased out beginning during the first quarter of next year.
"This is a difficult decision for us, but it's a decision we've had to make," said company spokesman Mike Goss.
Georgetown has the highest number of temporaries of any North American Toyota plant, and "that's predominantly because they haven't been so affected by the downturn," Goss said.
But Tuesday's actions "are proof that no one's immune," said Kristin Dziczek, a researcher at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Toyota told the affected workers throughout the day Tuesday. The workers are actually employees of Precision Staffing. The company's president, Kathy O'Daniel, said they're exploring other opportunities for the workers.
The temporary workers have long been a source of controversy at the plant.
Workers who have tried to unionize the plant have called it an injustice because the workers start at about $13 hourly compared to about $30 hourly for full-timers.
"They have families to feed, and I feel sorry for them," said John Williams, a 20-year plant employee. "They're not a commodity. It's not like seasonal help at the mall."
The union supporters have attacked the fact that Toyota employs the temporaries for up to two years before either hiring them as full-timers or placing them on a list for available openings for another year.
Toyota has countered the supporters' arguments, saying that the temps' wages are higher than other manufacturing jobs in the state and that unionized plants also have temporary workers.
"We have a solid 20-year record of a successful business model and that model protects 7,000 full-time members and we feel the vast majority of them appreciate that fact," Toyota spokesman Rick Hesterberg said.
"Our temps understand coming in there are no guarantees," Hesterberg said.
Williams said there is a need for a labor contract with the plant, which could govern how layoffs are done.
How will the laid-off workers fare?
They will probably have to look outside the auto industry, said William Parsons Jr., who organizes the annual Global Automotive Conference in Kentucky.
"Anybody that's automotive-related or is highly automotive dependent, those jobs are going to be few and far between," he said. "But there's plenty of work in others areas, the biofuels areas are still running hot and utilities are doing well."