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LANL To Cut 400-800 Jobs

By Jackie Jadrnak / Journal North Reporter on Wed, Feb 22, 2012

About 400 to 800 workers will be leaving Los Alamos National Laboratory this spring — preferably by their choice, the lab announced Tuesday.

Lab Director Charlie McMillan told workers during a meeting in a packed auditorium that the staff reduction plan has been sent to the National Nuclear Security Administration for approval, calling it a “voluntary separation program.”

This reduction will be taken from the 7,585 permanent employees at LANL, amounting to a 5 to 11 percent cut, according to spokesman Fred deSousa. It will not affect students, post-doctoral, term or union workers, he said, noting that those groups bring LANL’s total current employment to 11,127 people.

The labs’ employees are among the highest paid in the state, and such cuts are expected to be a blow to the state’s economy, particularly in northern New Mexico.

But Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., while applauding the lab’s workforce and role, noted that a growing federal debt necessitates belt tightening.

“Given the amount of federal resources New Mexico receives, austerity is unfortunately going to affect our state,” he said via email.

The lab’s budget for the current fiscal year, at $2.2 billion, is $300 million lower than the previous year, and no growth is expected in future budgets, according to its official news release.

“We are taking these actions now in an attempt to reduce the risks of involuntary layoffs,” said McMillan in a news release. “When combined with a suppressed attrition rate for the past three years, our current budget and future outlook require significant cost cutting.”

Despite the staff cutbacks, no plans are in place for any of the lab’s programs to be reduced or eliminated, deSousa said. Also, he added that jobs critical to the lab’s national security mission will not be cut.

Employees will be offered severance packages based on their years of service, he said, while adding that details won’t be available until the NNSA approves the proposal. The actual number of final staff cuts may depend on how many employees voluntarily leave, deSousa said, noting that further actions won’t be considered until that is known.

Reaction to the staff reductions was mixed Tuesday.

“LANL is critical to our national security and state’s economy and I will continue to push for adequate funding at both of New Mexico’s national labs,” Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in an email.

Scott Darnell, spokesman for Gov. Susana Martinez, said the governor is concerned about the potential effect of the cuts on the economy of northern New Mexico.

“She also believes these cuts are yet another by-product of the dysfunction in Washington, D.C., and the inability to appropriately prioritize national defense and national security in federal spending decisions,” Darnell said via e-mail.

Jon Barela, secretary of the state’s Economic Development Department, said he expects local small businesses to feel the impact of the cuts.

“It means people will be selling their homes, will not be purchasing goods and services in the area,” he said.

Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a lab critic, called the planned workforce reduction good news, saying, “The post-Cold-War nuclear weapons missions at LANL have grown much too much over the past 17 years. Not only have the missions grown, but so has the cost per scientist.”

“As a nation we must radically change priorities toward ambitious, effective policies and programs that address the mounting ecological, social, and economic problems we face,” Mello said in a news release. “LANL is not the place for that new work.”

The job-cut announcement comes on the heels of a federal decision to indefinitely defer construction of a new plutonium laboratory at LANL. Once construction began, the project would have provided 420 construction jobs, according to a federal project study. According to deSousa, money already budgeted for the project will be spent this year to complete design work, and most employees involved in that work were deployed from other sections of the lab and will be reabsorbed into the workforce.

Sharon Stover, chairwoman of the Los Alamos County Council, said of the cutback, “It’s disappointing because last year we were told that these missions were key to the defense of our country. I’m not sure what’s changed in the last few months, but we have a delegation that is going to D.C. next month. … We hope our congressional leaders can get us some answers and reverse the trend.”

But Congressman Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., whose district includes Los Alamos, said federal budget cuts are under way to reduce the deficit.

“Los Alamos National Laboratory is not immune from these cuts in the President’s budget, and this will no doubt have an impact on jobs in New Mexico,” he said in an email.

“By focusing our efforts on expanding LANL’s mission, as a recent National Research Council report recommends, we will better insulate the lab from future cuts by attracting new opportunities from diverse funding sources and keeping more jobs at Los Alamos,” he added.

With 40 percent of LANL’s workforce living in Los Alamos County, maintaining the health of the lab is the county’s No. 1 goal for economic vitality, Stover said.

The lab last offered buyouts in 2008, when 431 out of 8,110 regular permanent employees volunteered to leave.

“We were successful when we took similar action in 2008,” McMillan said. “I am fully aware of the economic footprint this lab has in northern New Mexico, and we’re taking every possible step to minimize the impacts.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal.

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