The 2,700 workers at Chrysler LLC’s Belvidere assembly plant will return to work this week, after five weeks off and almost daily news reports about the troubled automaker’s future. Chrysler closed all of its plants Dec. 19 for the annual two-week retooling. But because slumping sales nationally were creating a backlog on dealer lots, the Belvidere plant remained shuttered for an extra three weeks.

The reopening of Chrysler’s Belvidere assembly plant Monday didn’t come a moment too soon for Jenny and Dion Renteria.

Most of the 2,700 employees have been receiving most of their pay through a combination of company payroll and unemployment insurance. But Dion, who has 24 years with the company, said a Chrysler payroll glitch has delayed the bulk of his pay. Jenny was laid off from the plant last spring and remains out of work.

“We’ve been pretty much housebound here,” Jenny said. “We’re waiting on three checks. And with no money and just unemployment benefits, what can you do except sit at home? We have a 2-year-old daughter, so we’ve been enjoying spending time with her.”

Chrysler closed all of its plants Dec. 19 for the annual two-week retooling. But because slumping sales nationally were creating a backlog on dealer lots, the Belvidere plant remained shuttered for an extra three weeks.

Workers found a variety of ways to fill the downtime, but the automaker’s troubles added an element of uncertainty to their time off.

“The worst part has been us not knowing,” said Johnny Jackson, who transferred to Belvidere in 2006 from the truck plant in Warren, Mich. “We can’t plan any family thing until we know what’s going on with our livelihood.”

In December, Chrysler was facing bankruptcy until it received a $4 billion loan from the federal government. And last week, Fiat SpA announced an alliance with Chrysler, a no-cash deal that gives Fiat a 35 percent share of Chrysler in exchange for its small-car programs and advanced technologies.

Still, laid-off Belvidere workers kept busy over the course of the shutdown, said John Gedney, president of United Auto Workers Local 1268, which represents workers at the Belvidere plant and seven of its supplier companies.

“I can tell you, a lot of people volunteer their time around the union hall,” he said. “Just in conversation with people who have called me, it sounds like they’re doing work around the house. I ran into three Chrysler people at Menards recently. The majority of the time, it’s honey-do lists. A lot of transfers have returned home to New York, Delaware, St. Louis, wherever. There’s a lot of different things going on.”

Workers in Belvidere turned out 263,521 Dodge Calibers, Jeep Compasses and Jeep Patriots in 2008, down nearly 21 percent from 2007, but it was still the eighth-highest annual production total for the plant since 1978, the earliest year for which the Rockford Register Star has records.

Jackson has been spending his time promoting events at Bar 3 in downtown Rockford. He helps host a Sunday-night 30-and-older gathering, which attracts lots of workers from Chrysler and other plants.

“I’m looking forward to us going back,” he said. “I’m ready go to back to work and find out what’s going on, what the process is going to be.”

Sean F. Driscoll can be reached at (815) 987-1346 or sdriscoll@rrstar.com.