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Posted on Sun. Jun. 24, 2012 - 12:01 am EDT

Chrysler saves on 4-day workweek

Kokomo uses 10-hour shifts; local GM unimpressed

At a glance

U.S. auto sales increased in May for many of the biggest carmakers. A sampling includes:

•Toyota – 87 percent*

•Chrysler – 30 percent

•Volkswagen – 28 percent

•Nissan – 21 percent

•Ford – 13 percent

•General Motors – 11 percent

* In May of 2011, Toyota ran short of cars and trucks after an earthquake in Japan crippled its factories.

Source: Associated Press

At first glance, the alternative work schedule looks attractive.

It calls for four 10-hour days, giving workers a three-day weekend every week. That adds up to 49 extra days off every year.

Chrysler recently adopted the schedule at its three Kokomo transmission plants as a low-cost way to ramp up production.

Automakers that want to increase output have a choice: Build and equip more factories, or crank out more vehicles using existing operations. Not only is the second option cheaper, it’s much faster.

Although a Chrysler spokeswoman described the schedule as being even more productive than one of the company’s three-shift, 24-hour operations, a local General Motors spokeswoman said it’s not being considered for the Allen County truck assembly plant.

Some local workers might consider that good news. A union leader in Kokomo said his members hate the change made about a month ago.

How it works

Chrysler’s car sales rose by 30 percent last month compared with the previous year.

The Detroit company’s strategy for meeting increased demand has included converting its Kokomo plant to an alternative work schedule called 3-2-120.

Chrysler spokeswoman Jodi Tinson explained how it works: Three crews work two shifts a day for a combined 120 hours a week.

Crew A works 10-hour days Monday through Thursday. Crew B works 10-hour evening shifts Wednesday through Saturday. And Crew C – the swing shift – works days Friday and Saturday but evenings Monday and Tuesday.

The benefit, Tinson said, is that the factory is open 49 more days a year without paying overtime. Previously, production workers in the Howard County factory often were required to work Saturdays for 1 1/2 times their usual wages.

Kokomo workers will lose that overtime pay, but Chrysler officials hope the change brings them more work-life balance, Tinson said.

Chrysler has hired additional staff to make the schedule work. Tinson said the Kokomo plant has hired about 1,000 people over the last two years. She didn’t know how many are assigned to each work crew.

Chrysler has run the 3-2-120 schedule at two Michigan engine plants for several years and plans to adopt it at two more assembly plants – one in Michigan and one in Illinois.

The automaker’s plant in Windsor, Ontario, runs three shifts daily, Tinson said.

“It still doesn’t get us as much production as we get out of the 3-2-120,” she said, adding that lunch breaks and other stoppages have to be factored in.

Running only two shifts daily allows for a three-hour afternoon break, when the staff can repair and maintain equipment, Tinson said. Machines that run 24 hours a day have a greater chance of breaking down, she said, which can lead to a lot of people just standing around on the clock.

The drawbacks

GM’s local truck assembly plant runs three eight-hour shifts Monday through Friday. It’s one of five U.S. assembly plants running three traditional shifts.

Spokeswoman Stephanie Jentgen said weekends give the local operation sufficient time to perform maintenance and repairs on production equipment.

“When looking at production efficiencies, GM has found that running three shifts is the most efficient way to assemble vehicles,” she wrote in an email.

Although the local assembly plant is sticking to its current schedule, workers’ schedules have fluctuated as GM invests $275 million to outfit the plant to build the next-generation Silverado and Sierra. Model redesigns happen every few years. New equipment must be installed to accommodate those changes.

The local GM plant has scheduled several shutdown weeks this year so new equipment can be installed. The automaker sometimes requires overtime work on Saturdays to keep up with demand.

GM’s Defiance, Ohio, foundry is a two-shift operation, spokesman Robert Wheeler said in an email.

“Our production schedules are solely based on demand, so our schedules are dictated by that criteria,” he wrote.

Tom Lewandowski, president of the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, doesn’t know of any factories in the region using a four-day, 10-hour schedule.

“It seems like an awkward schedule if you want to keep the (equipment) running all the time,” he said.

Traditional shifts also make workers’ lives easier, he said. Eight-hour work shifts tend to coordinate better with children’s school schedules and spouses’ work schedules.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 1997 issued a report looking at various aspects of shift work.

Research has found that workers are typically able to maintain focus during shifts as long as 10 hours, according to the report, which was jointly released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

But as shifts are lengthened, workers have less time for their family and other obligations. They sometimes cut back on sleep to compensate, the report said. Studies have found that lack of sleep can lead to accidents on the job, behind the wheel and during other tasks that require concentration.

People with rotating work schedules – such as the swing-shift workers in the 3-2-120 arrangement – “can never completely adapt to a set work schedule,” the report says.

The report, titled “Plain Language About Shiftwork,” found that rotating shift workers “sleep the least of all” shift workers.

“Rotating shift workers are always trying to get used to changing work time,” the report states. “This is not easy, which is why rotating shift workers have more complaints than other workers about physical health and psychological stress.”

Chrysler’s Kokomo workers are getting a taste of that lifestyle now.

Rich Boruff, president of United Auto Workers Local 685, said the 3-2-120 schedule was adopted in Kokomo transmission plants in late May.

“It’s going rough,” he said during a brief phone interview between dealing with members’ problems. “Change is rough on members. Everybody hates it because it’s change.”

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