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Georgetown Toyota plant arranges volunteer work during stoppages

To Toyota employees, the work may seem slower than what they're used to at the plant, but their productivity amazes those at God's Pantry. "By the end of (the) shift, they'll have done almost a month's worth of what we normally do," said spokeswoman Mandy Brajuha.
To Toyota employees, the work may seem slower than what they're used to at the plant, but their productivity amazes those at God's Pantry. "By the end of (the) shift, they'll have done almost a month's worth of what we normally do," said spokeswoman Mandy Brajuha.

It was an assembly line of a different sort recently, as Toyota's Georgetown workers installed not Camry parts but pinto beans and rice while volunteering at God's Pantry.

Thirty employees spent a Friday this month repacking food for delivery to families in need around Central Kentucky. It's part of a series of efforts by the automaker to donate its highly trained workforce while its assembly lines are temporarily stopped because of a shortage of parts linked to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

The plant continued normal operations after the March 11 disaster until mid-April. At that point, it began idling production on select days and then settled into a schedule of no production Mondays and Fridays and only 50 percent Tuesdays through Thursdays. It plans to return to 100 percent production beginning in June, though other Toyota plants in North America will continue to have some stoppages.

In the meantime, Toyota has stuck by its pledge not to lay off its full-time permanent employees. As they have during past production stoppages, including those that followed recalls last year, employees have had three options: They can report to work as usual for training or plant improvement such as maintenance, use paid vacation time or take unpaid time off.

Local executives, though, have arranged for employees to volunteer to spend their Mondays and Fridays at various nonprofits around the region.

"They're running out of stuff for us to do at the plant," said Randy Leslie, a 21-year employee who was labeling food boxes on a recent Friday instead of his usual job delivering parts to one of the automaker's two sprawling assembly lines. "This benefits both Toyota and us, and it benefits God's Pantry and that's the main thing."

Another volunteer, Mark Hurt, who is a production group leader in Toyota's plastics shop, echoed Leslie's comments about the scheduling.

"It's getting tougher and tougher to find projects for all my team members," said the 17-year veteran. "The decision to take those eight hours and give back to the community is priceless.

"This is a good opportunity for everybody."

Toyota has sent its employees to numerous area nonprofits including Habitat for Humanity in Scott County, the Boy Scouts, the Lexington Hearing & Speech Center, and Lexington Children's Theatre.

At God's Pantry, the group was filling a need that has become more pressing during and since the recession, said spokeswoman Mandy Brajuha.

She said food donations from corporations dwindled during the economic downturn, as companies began to more closely monitor their food production and prevent overruns. God's Pantry has had to seek out new sources of food and began buying discounted bulk products, bringing them to Lexington to package down to family-friendly sizes.

Before lunch, Toyota's first shift of volunteers had repackaged 12,000 pounds of products.

For the workers, it was a slow day.

"It's a slower pace, but it's pretty much the same," said Ray Durham, who has worked at the plant for 23 years.

But that's fast by God's Pantry standards. "By the end of tonight's shift, they'll have done almost a month's worth of what we normally do," Brajuha said.

"Toyota's been a huge financial and service sponsor for many, many years, though I don't think they've had quite this impact in one day," she added.

She said God's Pantry has been promoting similar volunteering efforts to other Bluegrass companies. A conference room at the organization's site on Jaggie Fox Way allows for meetings, and workers can volunteer on both the front and back ends of that.

Kentucky Employers' Mutual Insurance has begun having quarterly volunteer days at the site, as well as at other nonprofits. KEMI gives employees as many as two days of paid leave annually to volunteer in the community.

"It's great from a team building perspective," said KEMI spokesman Ryan Worthen. "We're getting employees throughout the organization who don't normally work together serving together."

Lexington-based printermaker Lexmark International offers a similar program to its U.S. employees, giving up to three days of paid leave to volunteer at nonprofits.

The day of serving left a mark on Toyota's employees.

"Being in the plant's productive, but I can help out with the community here," Durham said. "That gives me a really good feeling."

And Brajuha said it speaks well of Toyota to offer its workers to the nonprofit.

"To continue to pay their employees while the assembly lines are shut down and then make them available to the community speaks volumes about the attitude of Toyota," she said.

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