Toyota Workers In Kentucky Stay Positive

Kentucky suppliers and workers at Toyota’s largest North American manufacturing plant remain confident there will be no long-term dip in sales as a result of the recall.

GEORGETOWN, Ky. (AP) -- Workers at Toyota's largest North American manufacturing plant know that if they encounter a problem and need to halt the whole process -- even on an assembly line where new vehicles whip through some 400 stations -- all they have to do is tug a nearby rope.

Some employees say the so-called andon system, typically activated hundreds of times each day at the Kentucky manufacturing plant, is similar to how the company is handling its historic recalls. Plant production is slated to halt entirely Friday, and possibly other days, less than a month after the gas pedal recall forced a weeklong shutdown of one of its two assembly lines.

The system stops the massive conveyor belt carrying future Camrys, sounds a high-pitched alarm and lights up an overhead board that summons a manager to the problem.

"Toyota's done exactly what we've been doing since I got here," said Mike Francis, a production manager who has been with the company 17 years. "You see a problem, you pull the andon and you stop. You fix the problem, you restart."

Workers were given the option of taking unpaid vacation or showing up for work and being assigned non-production tasks such as training, painting or cleaning. Plant spokesman Rick Hesterberg says he is expecting around 75 percent of the affected workers to show up, with others scheduling vacation.

But considering the impact of the company on central Kentucky -- particularly Georgetown, a community whose massive growth is directly attributed to Toyota being here -- workers and residents alike acknowledge any production hit raises concerns.

The Georgetown plant employs around 6,600 people, and more than 20,000 jobs across central Kentucky are directly attributed to Toyota and its suppliers, Hesterberg said.

"It's scary, it really is, especially for a community that is this small," said shop manager John Miller, who formerly worked for Ford in Detroit. "Quite honestly, if Toyota wasn't here, I'm not even sure this community would exist."

Joseph Jackson, a raw materials team leader, added: "Everybody here is our family. Our vehicles are so important to us, we just take it all pretty seriously."

The recall in the U.S. covers millions of vehicles over a concern about faulty acceleration, either through defective gas pedals or improperly placed floor mats. Only one of the Georgetown plant's two assembly lines had been equipping vehicles with the faulty gas pedals, made by CTS Corp. of Elkhart, Ind.

Jim Wiseman, vice president for corporate communications at Toyota North America, acknowledged there would be a short-term hit on the sales but said it was too early to know how many non-production days there would be at the Georgetown plant.

"I wouldn't expect any substantial number of days, but we'll see what happens," he said.

During testimony in front of Congress this week, top Toyota executives -- including CEO Akio Toyoda -- apologized for safety lapses. The company also has been under fire for celebrating in a July 2009 internal document some $100 million in savings stemming from Toyota's negotiation of a more limited recall with the government in 2007 over floor mats.

Toyoda was expected to make his first visit to the Georgetown factory as CEO Thursday afternoon and meet workers there.

In Georgetown, the whole controversy -- and especially the recall -- seems to have caught workers by surprise.

Susan Henson figured she would be one of the first to know if something was wrong with the accelerator considering one of her jobs at the plant is to drive the vehicles some 80 mph through a drum when they come off the line, checking the gas and brakes, among other things.

"We all drive these cars out there," said Henson, who lives in Lexington, about 20 miles south of Georgetown. "If there was something we didn't like about it, I think we'd all speak up."

Central Kentucky suppliers and residents of the area remain confident there will be no long-term dip in sales as a result of the recall.

"If it was a month or two or three months, it might have some negative impact," said David Stone, president of General Rubber & Plastics Co. in Lexington. "As far as two or three days, we're not expecting any slowdown in business."

Martha Tirlea, who has one son who works at Toyota and another who transports parts there, says she is hopeful the setback will strengthen the company long-term.

"You're always fearful, in this climate especially, about every job, but I think they will come out of it," said Tirlea, owner of Country Peddler Shoppe in downtown Georgetown. "I think they take care of any problem and make it right."

Debbie French, an administrative assistant in ERA Real Estate, said her company and many others across town have been boosted by Toyota and she doesn't expect her business to suffer.

"I always prefer to think about the best, but my crystal ball has been broken for years," French said.

Associated Press Writer Bruce Schreiner in Frankfort, Ky., contributed to this report.

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