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Subcontractors return

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LANL Budget > But not nearly all of them as ripples from the shutdown may have long-lasting consequences

By Arin McKenna

Los Alamos National Laboratory subcontractors felt the most immediate impact of the government shutdown and may feel the effects of budget uncertainty for some time to come.

LANL Director Charlie McMillan issued a memo to employees that read, “We are beginning the process of formally recalling our subcontractors. This may take a number of days depending on the program, funding on-hand and release of FY 2014 funds.”

Energy Solutions is one of approximately 20 subcontractors processing and shipping transuranic (TRU) waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad as part of the “3,706 Transuranic Waste Campaign.” Those operations shut down Oct. 8.

Vice President Miles Smith reported on Thursday that the company hopes to resume work on the project Monday.

“For us it’s fantastic,” Smith said. “We’ll get people back and nobody will have been impacted financially, since we’ve advanced vacation and taken other steps. That would not be the case if we’d gone another week.”

When Smith was contacted Thursday, LANL had not yet issued the authorization to return to work.

“We’ve only had unofficial notice that it’s coming,” Smith said. “The lab hasn’t had the money allocated to them yet. So they’ve got their notice, and they’ve got our notice ready to go and they anticipate that maybe tonight or sometime tomorrow. So we’re planning on going back to work on Monday.”

Energy Solutions plans to call workers back whether or not the Department of Energy bureaucracy has kicked into gear.

“Even if the lab isn’t ready, we’ll pay our workers for that day or two it takes for the government to give the money to DOE, and for DOE to forward the money to Los Alamos,” Smith said.

Smith does not anticipate any major problems in meeting the June 30, 2014 deadline for the project.

“Every day we lose has an impact, but I’m thinking we should be able to make up the schedule and still meet the deadlines of the governor’s goal,” Smith said. “We have talked about a few extraordinary measures, such as working over the holidays. But I think we can make up the time without impacting people too much. Two weeks isn’t too hard to make up. A month’s a different matter.”

Smith was especially glad for his employees’ sake that the shutdown has ended.

“Business wise, you have to work to make money, but the real impact is on those who work for us who would have been impacted financially if this had gone any longer,” Smith said.

“It’s one thing for the company, which can absorb losses for a while, certainly a lot longer than people can absorb losses. I’m really happy for our folks, that we’re able to start calling them back in to get back to work.”
Smith also reflected on the impacts a longer shutdown could have had on morale.

“You hate to get this close and then have defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. We’re so close to accomplishing the governor’s goal that it would be terrible to go on much longer, since so many people worked so hard for that.”

Energy solutions has not yet tallied up its losses, but in an earlier interview Smith estimated the company was losing $73,000 a day in revenue and up to $25,000 a day maintaining staff and operations.

Another subcontractor, Merrick & Company, only received its stand down orders last week, but the company could feel a much longer impact from the gridlock in Washington.

Vice President Scott Gustafson expected notification to return to work on current projects by Friday.

“The problem is that although we are going to be starting back on some of the projects we were working on before, I think partly because of the shutdown, some of the work that had been planned has been postponed–probably because of some uncertainty–and we’re unfortunately not going to be able to get people going,” Gustafson said. “So we still have to take action for some of our people, and furlough some.”

Gustafson attributed the delay in part to the shutdown, but largely due to the appropriations process.

“We’re always dealing with it (the appropriations process) to some degree, because the government has a really hard time passing any kind of budget. They’re always passing some sort of continuing resolution or an omnibus bill to appropriate various agencies like the NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration),” Smith said.

“And because of that uncertainty of the funding, usually every year there’s some uncertainty as to how much the laboratory will get from the NNSA in order to do their work.

“It’s just that the government shutdown has exasperated that this year, to the point where there is even more uncertainty. I would have to fathom the NNSA won’t be able to tell Los Alamos how much funding they will have in their various pools of money.”

Gustafson reported that projects that were scheduled to start soon are being delayed and that new projects the lab might have proposed for the upcoming fiscal year are also likely to be postponed.

Of the 25 employees impacted by the shutdown, Merrick is able to recall all but five or six, but some of the recalled employees will face reduced work weeks.

Gustafson would like to think the uncertainty will end by the continuing resolution’s new Jan. 15 deadline, but he is not optimistic about the newly formed committee’s ability to reach compromise.

“I don’t have a lot of confidence that the next deadline will be met with any kind of action. History tells us that they’ve gone through a very similar process with Simpson-Bowles (Commission) and the super committee in the past, where our congressmen and elected officials have kicked the can down the road and neither one of those actions–that were very similar in approach–had any real effect. So why should we believe this will be any different?

“It’s the danger working for the federal government. And it’s painful to see that our elected officials apparently don’t see the great impact to people.”