Officials respond to Livermore Lab employees' flood of angry complaints
By Ian Hoffman, STAFF WRITER
Article Last Updated: 06/23/2007 02:39:01 AM PDT
Federal nuclear weapons officials tried calming Lawrence Livermore Lab workers Friday after word that new federal requirements could result in lower retirement benefits.
With dozens of angry employee phone calls and e-mails pouring into Washington, the National Nuclear Security Administration put out a statement reassuring workers that the agency "listens."
As a message, it fell short of a Clintonian "feel your pain" moment but was perhaps as close as a quasi-military bureaucracy comes to "trust us, we care."
Employees of the weapons lab are not in a trusting mood. On Thursday, they learned they must choose from two retirement plans, one of which is mandatory for all new hires and could result in 20 percent lower future retirement benefits than employees' current pensions administered by the University of California.
"I think everyone's in a real uncertain spot right now," said Sue Byars, a senior official in the Society of Professionals, Scientists and Engineers, a group running a union organizing drive at the lab.
The university's pension plan is one of the nation's largest and historically best funded. But the federal government is handing management of the lab over to a private partnership between the university and several corporations, with a requirement to establish two new, separate retirement plans for lab workers.
The National Nuclear Security Administration saidone of the plans had to cap benefits at no more than 105 percent of the market value for benefits for 15 research-intensive corporations such as IBM, Hewlett Packard, Northrop Grumman and AT&T.
Many of those companies have been cutting their benefits, widening the gap between the lab's new benefits package and what the university has been paying.
Executives for the incoming private management team, led by Bechtel National Inc. and the university, say they fear employees will perceive the lower benefits as a sign of the federal government's waning interest in the lab and its workers. Senior federal weapons officials tried to dispel that notion Friday and tell lab employees that the government cares about keeping Livermore full of talented scientists and engineers.
"Livermore National Laboratory is of vital importance to our nation's national security and all of the laboratory's employees are valued team members," said Thomas D'Agostino, the administration's deputy administrator over weapons work. "We are hearing employee concerns, ... and we will be responsive. We have an open process to receive questions and comments, and we are listening."
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