Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Volkswagen employees David Buoy, left, and Brooke Benoit, right, work with Northside Neighborhood House relationship manager Dakota Gouger at Northside Neighborhood House Thrift Store on Wednesday, June 16, 2021 in Red Bank, Tenn. During Volkswagen's shut down as a result of the national chip shortage, some Volkswagen employees are assisting local community organizations such as Northside Neighborhood House.

Trying to make the best of the semiconductor chip squeeze forcing Volkswagen Chattanooga to shut down production, some workers have taken to volunteering across the area.

More than 500 VW employees are putting in hours at local nonprofits during a two-week suspension of assembly that ends Monday at the sprawling plant.

Heather Owensby, a production team leader in the plant's paint department, said at the Northside Neighborhood House Thrift Store in Red Bank on Wednesday that many VW employees work long hours in the factory and don't have a chance to volunteer.

"This gives us an opportunity we don't normally have," the five-year VW worker said. "Usually we don't have the free time to do this."

Owensby said she and a few other employees were sorting through donations at the Dayton Boulevard store. She quipped that she picked the thrift store to volunteer at because she "likes the AC" and the work isn't outside.

Burkhard Ulrich, Volkswagen Chattanooga's senior vice president of human resources, said that despite the temporary production shut down, the company has kept its employees on the payroll. The VW plant employs more than 4,000 workers in Chattanooga.

The VW workers were asked to take one day off during a week and are still earning about 80% of pay, he said.

In addition to volunteering, manufacturing department employees are conducting planned assembly line and quality improvements during the period. Also, Ulrich said workers are readying for future production of the ID.4 electric SUV in 2022 while conducting pre-series assembly activities related to the new electric vehicle.

But he said Volkswagen wanted to "give back" to the city and reached out to the United Way of Greater Chattanooga for volunteer opportunities.

"We're deeply rooted in the community," Ulrich said.

Monique Berke, the United Way's vice president of community and corporate engagement, said the entity was able to connect VW with a number of nonprofit agencies.

"We were happy to step in and work with Volkswagen," she said.

Chambliss Center for Children, Chattanooga Area Food Bank, Chester Frost Park, Creative Discovery Museum, Habitat for Humanity, Hamilton County Schools, Signal Centers and the Tri-State Riding Center are among the groups where VW workers are volunteering, according to the German automaker.

Brent Hinson, VW Chattanooga's chief financial officer, said the plant has seen financial fallout from the chip shortage that has hit the auto industry worldwide along with other businesses.

"Anytime we lose volume there's a financial impact," he said.

Hinson said while plant officials don't like the production shut down, "we want to get out in the community. We're one team, one community."

The production suspension is the second this year for the Chattanooga plant. In May, the VW factory stopped assembly on a Friday and a Monday around a weekend for the same reason.

The suspensions come at a time when VW sales in the United States are surging.

In the first quarter of 2021, sales were 21% higher than a year ago, according to Volkswagen of America. Sales of the Chattanooga-made Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport SUVs were 30,520 in the most recent period, up 98% compared to the same quarter in 2020.

Sales of the midsize Passat sedan, also assembled at the Chattanooga plant, were 4,535 vehicles in the 2021 quarter, down 24% from a year ago. But, the new vehicle market has heavily shifted to SUVs and trucks.

Some 64% of the Volkswagens sold in the first quarter were SUVs, according to VW. That's up from about 17% four years ago, the company reported.

Contact Mike Pare at Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.