FCA to idle Belvidere Jeep plant again for a week in February

Third pause in six months for facility building the Jeep Cherokee

Bloomberg reports that Fiat Chrysler will shut down the Belvidere, Ill., plant that assembles the Jeep Cherokee for a week this month, starting February 17. FCA has been tweaking the plant's headcount and production schedule for a while now, usually downward. The automaker laid off 1,371 workers last February and fired 32 more in May, the same month it eliminated the third production shift. In August, the automaker shut down the plant for one week, then did so again for two weeks last month. As in August and January, FCA explained this month's idling by saying it needs to get production in alignment with demand. Cherokee sales declined 20% in the U.S. last year, helping to account for Jeep's overall 5% domestic drop in 2019.

On top of the shutdown, FCA is offering buyouts to certain plant workers among the 3,600 hourly and 300 salaried personnel. The choices are either taking a "separation package" that comes with a $60,000 lump sum payment, or accepting voluntary termination that pays a lump sum based on seniority. Employees that choose a buyout can't return to Chrysler, becoming no longer "eligible for recall, rehire or reemployment." Belvidere personnel have until March 11 to make their decisions. Bloomberg says the aim is to reduce the number of workers with more seniority and higher pay grades; a company spokesperson said the move would "create opportunities for those employees still on layoff," who were lesser-paid. Around 900 of those laid-off workers remain on standby for reassignment to another plant.

Analysts predict a soft year for car sales, so FCA might not be the only automaker pruning the rolls. Early estimates have come in below 17 million, and if that comes true, 2020 will be the slowest year since 2014, when 16,531,070 units left lots.

The new contract between FCA and the UAW made provisions for Belvidere, which has tempered talk of a total shutdown.The automaker will invest $55 million for "fresh models/features off of the current (KL) platform" that underpins the Cherokee as well as the Chinese-market Jeep Grand Commander (it was previously used for the Dodge Dart and Chrysler 200). Outside of that, some observers think the carmaker could be planning a three-row Chrysler crossover based on the KL platform, akin to the Grand Commander, for the United States.

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