About 27,000 US hourly workers have left Ford under buyout or early retirement offers, the automaker told a news agency on Thursday.

Ford offered the packages last year to reduce its work force to match lower demand for its cars and trucks and, initially, about 37,000 workers signed up for the offers, but not all have left the company, the automaker told The Associated Press (AP).

It has until September to phase in the departures as it closes plants under a restructuring plan, and some of the workers could change their minds and stay with the company, the report added.

Ford spokeswoman Marcey Evans told AP about half the 27,000 who left were not eligible for retirement, which will reduce the company’s long-term retiree health care liabilities. At the end of 2006, Ford’s unfunded retiree health care and life insurance liability was $US25.9bn, AP said, citing the automaker’s annual report.

AP also noted that health care costs are likely to be a major topic during national contract talks with the United Auto Workers this summer.

About 8,000 workers left Ford last year and 19,000 so far this year, Evans told the Associated Press. The figures reportedly include workers at Ford plants as well as factories the company took back from Visteon, its former parts operation that was spun off as a separate company in 2000.

Ford took these operations back into a specially-formed unit called Automotive Component Holdings (ACH) and has since announced several deals to sell off individual plants and/or product lines such as this week’s sale of the ACH lighting business and its Sandusky, Ohio plant to Merdian Automotive Systems.

AP noted that Dearborn-based Ford, nonetheless, lost $12.7bn last year and has mortgaged its assets to fund its turnaround plan.

Ford intends to close 16 manufacturing facilities by 2012 as part of its plan. So far, it has identified 10 of the plants to be shuttered, the report said.

When it announced the buyout and early retirement offers in September, Ford set a goal of shedding up to 30,000 hourly workers by the end of 2008. The company said on Wednesday that the goal would be achieved before 2008, the news agency said.

All of Ford’s production workers were offered buyout and early retirement plans worth up to $140,000. The company now has about 60,000 workers represented by the UAW in the US, the Associated Press added.