Wednesday, November 21, 2007
LANL Paid Salaries Of $911M Last Year
By Raam Wong
Journal Staff Writer
LOS ALAMOS— Congress' failure to pass a 2008 budget will likely mean a funding shortfall for the nation's nuclear weapons complex, job losses at Los Alamos National Laboratory— and for one local hair stylist, fewer heads of hair to cut.
Ruby Maes works here at Hair Experts, one of countless northern New Mexico businesses where LANL workers spent some of their $911 million in earnings last year.
The lab's announcement this week that it planned to cut 500 to 750 jobs through voluntary buyouts had Maes nervous Tuesday as she reflected on not only her own livelihood, but that of five family members who work at the lab.
"They shouldn't do this right before the holidays," said Maes, adding that lab workers "can't enjoy the holidays with their families because they have this hanging over them, wondering, 'Am I gonna be the one?' ''
But for several lab workers spending their lunch breaks at eateries like Pizza Hut and Quizno's on Tuesday, job cuts have been expected for several months.
The job cut plan, which still must be approved by the National Nuclear Security Administration, comes amid increasing operation costs associated with last year's change in management at the lab and continuing budget uncertainties.
Congress has failed to pass a budget for the current fiscal year that began Oct. 1 and relied instead on a series of temporary measures allowing most of the federal government, including the lab, to continue spending at last year's levels.
Mark Haagenstad, a lab civil engineer, said he fears Congress will continue to pass these stop-gap measures in the years to come, leaving Los Alamos to wither on the vine for lack of funding.
"I would like to hold onto my job," said Haagenstad, sipping a drink at Starbucks. "I can't figure out how I'll pay my mortgage otherwise."
LANL veteran Fred Michael Mueller called the lab's workforce restructuring plan that cuts jobs a responsible response to Congress.
"You're dealt a hand of cards," the theoretical physicist said. "You have to play those cards."
Others Tuesday were less sanguine.
Adam Feldman, executive director of the New Mexico Republican Party, slammed Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., for voting in favor of a House spending bill this summer that cut the lab's funding. The measure would still need to be reconciled with a Senate bill that maintains LANL funding.
"When Rep. Udall failed to show strong leadership on the Appropriations Committee and voted to authorize the lab cuts on the floor of the House, it cost New Mexicans their jobs, it hurt New Mexico's economy, and it damaged our national security," Feldman said in a statement.
Udall, who represents Los Alamos and has indicated he plans to run for the U.S. Senate next year, has said he voted for the House bill to send a signal that LANL must diversify its mission beyond weapons to include other areas of research, such as renewable energy.
Udall noted in a brief Journal interview Tuesday that while the House bill was under consideration he offered an amendment to add nearly $200 million in funding but it was "defeated overwhelmingly."
Udall did not answer whether he would vote the same way for the House bill that cut LANL funding if given another chance, but said, "This was a vote about the future. For me, it's continuing to fight for the future of the permanence of the lab."
He added: "People losing jobs is something that really tears at my heart— and I know it tears at communities."
Española mayor Joseph Maestas, a Democrat considering running for Udall's House seat, called the divisions in Washington over nuclear weapons policy a "train wreck" that will impact northern New Mexico communities. Many lab workers live in Española.
Maestas noted that the lab has already cut hundreds of jobs from its subcontractor work force and reduced its procurements budget for everything from computers to staplers.
LANL spokesman Steve Sandoval said the lab paid about $911 million in salaries during the 2006 calendar year, including $478 million to workers in Los Alamos County, $220 million in Santa Fe County and $130 million in Rio Arriba County.
"Obviously those wages do end up in the economies," Sandoval said. Lab procurements totaled $734 million in the last fiscal year, nearly half of that in northern New Mexico.
Jamie Duke, an associate pastor at the First Baptist Church in Los Alamos, said that the job uncertainties are being felt by members of his congregation. "The families (of the workers) bear a lot of stress," he said.
For now, the lab is waiting to see how many workers accept voluntary buyouts. Involuntary layoffs will be necessary if not enough workers choose to leave.
Lab officials asked to give workers a more lucrative severance package, but the National Nuclear Security Administration refused to approve it.
NNSA spokesman John Broehm said Tuesday the lab's severance package was generous as-is and that history has shown that higher incentives don't significantly increase the number of workers choosing to leave.
Journal staff writer Jeff Jones contributed to this report.