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Published: Thursday, 8/16/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Last Jeep Liberty ready to roll off line

Layoffs planned for many while Toledo plant is retooled

BY TYREL LINKHORN
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Newly assembled Jeep vehicles are inspected by a worker at the Toledo Assembly complex. Newly assembled Jeep vehicles are inspected by a worker at the Toledo Assembly complex.
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There are still a few Jeep Libertys to be built, but soon the assembly line will be idle.

Chrysler Group LLC will then go full-tilt into upgrading its Toledo facility with the company's most advanced technology -- including some not yet seen in any of its other North American plants.

Whenever that last Liberty rolls off the Toledo line, it will mark the end of an 11-plus-year-run of more than 1.25 million Libertys.

Chrysler says a few minor delays will push back production of the last Liberty to Friday. However, union officials believe the plant can still finish production today as previously scheduled, with Friday work possible as a contingency if needed.

The new yet-unnamed model to be built here is shrouded in secrecy by Chrysler, but it is expected to be much different than the Liberty.

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The shutdown will mean layoffs for about 800 of the 950 hourly employees who made up the Liberty work force.

The 150 employees who will stay on are skilled-trades workers who will tear out the old equipment and install the new. Some of that work is already under way.

Production of the Jeep Wrangler, done on a different line in a separate part of the complex, will be unaffected. Both the Liberty and the Wrangler are built only in Toledo.

For many of the soon to be laid-off Liberty workers, the time away from the line will be welcomed.

"A lot of people, they've been working 10-hour days for a long time, Saturdays off and on, and I think they're looking forward to a break ," said Dan Henneman, Jeep unit chairman for UAW Local 12. "But they're also anxious to get back and launch the new car."

Full-scale vehicle production of the new sport utility vehicle isn't expected to start until the second quarter of 2013.

Laid-off workers will be eligible for Ohio unemployment benefits, as well as Chrysler's own supplemental unemployment benefit. Company spokesman Jodi Tinson said together those programs provide employees with 95 percent of the take-home pay that they'd earn in a 40-hour work week.

The workers will keep their health insurance; however, dental coverage will be interrupted during the shutdown. Workers will return to the same pay scale and seniority they had when they were laid off.

Production of the Liberty has been brisk this year, with nearly 73,000 rolling off the line through July. To the same point last year, the line had built about 55,000 vehicles, including about 14,500 Dodge Nitros. The Nitro was discontinued in December.

"I've been working 60 hours a week average, and as far as I'm hearing rumors we're going to be working a lot of overtime when we get back," said Robert Duran, a 28-year employee of Chrysler. "They've got some high expectations for the new vehicles. A couple months off, it's going to be nice."

Mr. Duran plans to use some of his time away to get a commercial driver's license, a certification he's long wanted to acquire but hasn't been able to find the time.

How long employees are out depends on their individual jobs. Chrysler expects to build some pre-production models of the new vehicle in December.

Mr. Duran's job is delivering stock to the assembly line, and he doesn't expect to be out too long.

When he does return, things will be much different.

"It's going to be a whole new ball game," he said.

There's much to do before employees get back into the plant and start building cars, though.

"You have to get all new machinery in for the body shop, you have to train everybody. It's all new equipment, all new tooling, all new suppliers, a new engine. All those things have to come together before you can get the work force back to start building cars," Mr. Henneman said.

All employees will go through a two-week training session related to Chrysler's World Class Manufacturing implementation before returning to the plant. Once back, they'll be trained specifically on their individual jobs.

The long-awaited second shift will come on in the third quarter of next year. Though union officials previously believed that could bring up to 1,400 new jobs, Mr. Henneman said this week that Chrysler has not committed to more than the 1,105 it had announced.

Chrysler officials said Wednesday afternoon they'd filled their applicant pool and would begin sorting through applications to move on to the next stage of the hiring process.

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: tlinkhorn@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.



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