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LANL seeks to shed up to 800 jobs

Roger Snodgrass | For The New Mexican
Posted: Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Los Alamos National Laboratory plans to reduce its workforce by 400 to 800 employees this spring through voluntary buyouts.

In an all-hands meeting Tuesday, LANL Director Charles McMillan outlined a "voluntary separation program" that avoids forced layoffs.

The plan must be approved by the National Nuclear Security Administration.

"If enough people participate, we feel better about not having to do something involuntary," McMillan said.

According to lab spokesman Fred deSousa, McMillan emphasized that the process was voluntary. "He said nobody can volunteer you. Your manager can't volunteer you," deSousa said after the meeting.

Lab officials blamed new budget realities for the cost-cutting initiative, noting that the annual budget for the current fiscal year falls about $300 million short of last year's total -- $2.2 billion compared to $2.5 billion in fiscal year 2011. About $240 million of the shortfall is in the weapons program, including $140 million specifically related to nuclear weapons. Another $60 million is attributed to a decline in work for others, mostly other national security agencies. To make matters more difficult, yearly attrition rates have been lower than average for the last three years, and future budgets are not expected to increase, according to laboratory projections.

The LANL announcement came after the Obama administration announced last week that it planned to defer for at least five years construction of a controversial $6 billion plutonium research lab at Los Alamos. Construction had been expected to begin this year on the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility.

County officials said they were told the deferment would result in a loss of 1,000 planned construction jobs.

As of Tuesday, the laboratory counted a total workforce of 11,127 permanent employees of the managing contractor Los Alamos National Security. Of those, 9,585 were in the group targeted for reductions. The reductions will not affect unionized workers or students, although the number of students at the lab will be capped at 2011 levels. At present, a so-called "flexible workforce" of 1,134 employees would not be subject to the reduction, although that possibility hasn't been ruled out, McMillan said.

An employee subject to a voluntary reduction would receive a "standard severance package," which is based on years of service and a set of terms that will need to be approved by the NNSA, which oversees the nuclear weapons complex.

Anticipating narrow financial straits ahead, the lab formed a panel of senior managers late last year to study alternatives.

A similar program of voluntary reduction was successful in 2008, the last time the workforce was at risk. At that time, the laboratory sought reductions of 450 to 750 employees, and received 430 eligible applicants. Combined with a group of 140 employees who left their jobs by natural attrition, the outcome was sufficient to avert involuntary cuts. Those cuts were necessitated by approximately $176 million in extra costs that were added to the lab's budget, including new state and local gross-receipts taxes, additional fees to the management company, and new salaries and employer-paid benefits.

In ensuing years, according to recent congressional testimony by former LANL Director Michael Anastasio, new annual costs related to the for-profit contract rose by more than 10 percent of lab's budget. Anastasio expressed concern that "a new age of austerity" would have a significant impact on sustaining "high quality science, engineering and mission effectiveness in the nuclear security enterprise."

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said he was concerned about the impact that budget cuts would have at the lab.

"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," Udall said in a statement.

The watchdog Los Alamos Study Group hailed the development, saying it would help restrain excessive growth and much higher salaries for managers and scientists compared to counterparts in other federal departments and laboratories.

"We believe weapons laboratory salaries and benefits should be brought down toward federal levels, starting at the top, and LANL should become a narrowly focused federal nuclear laboratory," said Greg Mello, executive director of the group.

As is almost always the case, the laboratory meeting was closed to non-badge-holders, including the press.

McMillan said details of the separation packages would not be disclosed until the plan is approved.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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