ORNL prepares for job cuts to deal with shrinking budgets

masonAs it prepares for tighter budgets and a host of unknowns and uncertainties, Oak Ridge National Laboratory is again in the position of cutting jobs. UT-Battelle, the managing contractor, has received approval from the U.S. Department of Energy to eliminate up to 475 positions, and ORNL Director Thom Mason today announced plans for a “voluntary separation program” that provides financial incentives for those who leave the payroll willingly.

ORNL currently has close to 4,500 employees.

“We hope the decision-makers who provide our funding view a strong national laboratory system as essential to U.S. competitiveness, with a return on investment far higher than the short-term cost,” Mason said in a message to staff. “The truth, however, is that we don’t know exactly what the budget picture will look like, how much we will receive, or exactly which programs will expand or contract. All we know for certain is that after a period of growth that has resulted in the transformation of ORNL, fiscal prudence requires us to prepare for smaller budgets in years to come.”

Mason noted that the lab has put in place a number of belt-tightening measures in the past couple of years to prepare for tough times. “Work force restructurings, the initiation of employee contributions to the pension plan, and a shift toward more consumer-driven health care have kept us on sound financial footing despite sequestration, an economic downturn, and the rising costs of doing business,” he said.

Those changed have been effective, allowing the lab to actually restore some of the benefits — such as matching contributions to 401(k) plans — that were taken away.

“Unfortunately, the federal budget outlook does not promise to improve. After remaining steady at approximately $1.6 billion from 2010 to 2012, we anticipate closing the books on fiscal 2013 with business volume closer to $1.5 billion. In 2014, some models project a decrease in business volume to as low as $1.4 billion,” Mason said.

The lab director said the lab does not have a specific target for the number of job reductions, at least not at this time. Although receiving approval for up to 475 job cuts, Mason said, “We certainly hope far fewer staff are affected.”

But the lab doesn’t have a clear picture at this time and may not really known the situation until early in 2014, he said.

in terms of the ORNL spokesman David Keim said the voluntary separation program would be put in place, effective Oct. 1, and applications will be received until Nov. 14. Employees will then have a week to change their minds.

Lab management will evaluate the applications between  Nov. 25 and Dec. 4, with employees to be notified on Dec. 6 whether they were accepted for the program. Salaried workers leaving voluntarily will receive a week’s pay for every year they’ve worked at the lab, up to 25 years. Bargaining unit workers will receive the severance package outlined in their contract.

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.