Lab reveals job cut plan

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By Roger Snodgrass

The director of Los Alamos National Laboratory introduced the first phase of a plan to reduce the workforce by 500-750 jobs by a process of self-selection.The plan was unveiled at an all-employee meeting Monday afternoon, followed by a memo from Director Michael Anastasio that reiterated the details of what he called “a hedge against the uncertainties of the budget and its timing.”The proposed plan does not include a financial incentive that was rejected by the Department of Energy late last week. For employees who might have been thinking about leaving, but who were waiting for a $10,000 check as was offered in the 1995 reduction, the message is that there is no reason to wait any longer.The only real incentive is that a voluntary departure at this stage will qualify as an involuntary departure for the purposes of qualifying for severance benefits.A final plan has yet to be approved by the federal managers, but the current plan calls for involuntary reductions to be imposed in a second phase if voluntary reductions do not meet the goal.A third phase – additional workforce reductions – may come into play if warranted by further deterioration in federal funding. The closed meeting, including questions from employees and answers from the lab, lasted about two hours, according to Kevin Roark in the lab’s communications office.Budget prospect darkens

The news came at the same time as the budget picture for the laboratory took a step for the worse.Under veto threat by President Bush for current appropriations requests totaling $22 billion more than he authorized, Democratic leaders have reduced the budget levels available to each of the appropriations subcommittees. Their decision splits the difference, seeking an $11 billion across-the-board reduction in their authorization limits to the individual appropriations subcommittees as a compromise, according to Senate staff.The current Senate proposal – the laboratory’s best hope – came in at $1.8 billion over the president’s budget and so is unlikely to hold up, according to communications from both U.S. Senators from New Mexico.Democrat Sen. Jeff Bingaman said he was concerned that reducing proposed domestic spending overall could have a negative impact on the lab’s budget. “It is extremely disappointing that job cuts must even be considered,” he said.Republican Sen. Pete Domenici said in an announcement that he believes the employment reduction is necessary. “Nothing about this situation is satisfying. Faced with ongoing budget uncertainties, LANL’s leadership had no choice but to reduce its workforce,” he said. “I had urged DOE to accept a broader LANL incentive.  It chose not to approve that, even though it would have made for a better incentive package. Nevertheless, the severance package being offered is good. Hopefully, it will encourage those nearing retirement to take the package and preserve jobs for those who still have a long future at the lab,” Domenici said.Congress will not resume work until Dec. 3, at which point it will have two weeks to work out a solution to the current spending bills that expire on Dec. 14. As the ranking member of the Energy and Water Appropriation Subcommittee, Domenici will be a participate with the committee chair, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. on the Senate side along with Reps. Pete Vizcloskey, D. -Ind., and David Hobson, R-Ohio.In a response to the job-cutting announcement Monday, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said, “Congress shouldn't be curtailing their mission, but rather challenging them to continue scientific innovation and help build America's renewable energy future." Richardson said he had instructed Economic Development Department Secretary Fred Mondragon and Workforce Solutions Department Secretary Betty Sparrow Doris to meet with Los Alamos officials directly to plan as soft a landing as possible.

Severance packages

In his memo to employees, Anastasio said the reduction measures were taken to meet the reality of the flat funding from Congress, despite the $175 million in added costs under the new management contract that began June 1, 2006. He said previous cost-cutting, including shrinking the contractor workforce, “has left us with essentially no flexibility to deal internally with significant budget swings.”He cited “the large budget uncertainties for this and future years,” noting that the first round of cuts were necessary even assuming Congress would approve funding at the current levels.Spokesman Roark explained that the first phase of cuts assumed funding levels would continue at the FY07 level.The lab’s standard severance package provides for up to 39 weeks of pay, depending on length of service, but newer hires could receive as little as a week or two of pay.Some key employees in critical positions will not be eligible for the self-selection program.