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Legislature hears job pain

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By Roger Snodgrass

SANTA FE – The director of Los Alamos National Laboratory won appreciation from state legislators Wednesday for appearing on the day before Thanksgiving to brief them on the lab’s current restructuring plans.The legislators may have been looking for a silver lining but they settled for a clearer picture of how lab officials expect to gain a little more budgeting flexibility as they face uncertain funding prospects for next year and the future.Many agreed with lab director Michael Anastasio’s expressions of concern for the individuals, families and the affected communities of northern New Mexico.“We all know what we’ve read in the papers,” said the chairman of the LANL oversight committee, Sen. Phil Griego. “What is the anticipated result?”Anastasio walked the committee through the plan, not yet formally approved by the Department of Energy, for trimming 500-750 jobs, up to about 9 percent of the workforce. The first phase would try to find that many employees willing to volunteer to leave or retire.This was a range of cuts, Anastasio said, that was prudent and manageable and a step he hoped would minimize the need for involuntary reductions in a second phase.About 9 percent of workers in critical job classifications would be excluded from both voluntary and involuntary reductions, he said, and a third phase might be required depending on the funding outcome in Congress for the remainder of this fiscal year which runs through September.The lab’s standard severance package, inherited from the previous managers, would apply, allowing up to 39 weeks of pay, depending on years worked, along with medical benefits that would begin phasing out after the first year.The new nonprofit managers had to absorb $175 million in increased expenses last year, including new taxes, award fees, salaries, new benefits systems and inflation, Anastasio said. He noted that the normal 400 or so retirees that might have been expected, turned out to be only 107 last year.Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Los Alamos, Rio Arriba and Santa Fe, asked why an employee would want to volunteer to leave, if there was no difference in the severance package from one phase to the other.“In phase one, the employee makes the decision,” Anastasio said.Martinez also led a round of questions, followed up by several legislators, focusing on employees who had retired from the lab under the previous contract, but had been rehired by the laboratory as new employees.“What about double-dippers?” he asked.Anastasio said, “They’re employees like anybody else,” and added that they could not be discriminated against under federal law.He noted at one point that there were about 600 employees that retired and were hired back.House Speaker Ben Lujan questioned how much savings the lab would realize after losing 500-750 employees.Anastasio said the average salary at the lab with fringe benefits is valued at about $120,000 a year, which would mean a savings of $60-90 million in the first year.Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert, R-Sandoval, asked about unemployment benefits for those who leave voluntarily as opposed to those who are asked to leave.Anastasio said the question had come up several times with the employees and that it was a decision the state would have to make.“From the lab’s perspective,” he said, “we’ll code them as if the are eligible for state unemployment.”Toward the end of the meeting, Economic Development Secretary Fred Mondragon and Workforce Solutions Secretary Betty Sparrow-Doris paid a visit to the committee, having emerged from a cabinet meeting in the Governor’s office at the Capitol.The two secretaries were unable to answer the unemployment question, but Mondragon said, “The governor has asked us to do whatever we can legally to help the employees at Los Alamos.”Secretary Doris said the low employment rate in the state was a hopeful factor.The state officials said they would be organizing a task force to assist in the transition.Rep. Jeannette Wallace, R-Los Alamos, Sandoval and Santa Fe, said, “There are rough days ahead for all of us in New Mexico. We wish it had not been drawn out so long.”She said a community dialogue group that has begun meeting in Los Alamos on the workforce reductions would meet again on Dec. 11 at a time and location to be arranged.