National labs to cut more than 500 jobs

Source: Christa Marshall, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, August 10, 2017

Two national labs are eliminating more than 500 staff positions as the Trump administration pushes for deep budget cuts at the Department of Energy.

In an email to staff yesterday, Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thomas Zacharia said the lab would reduce its workforce by 350 positions by the end of the year. The lab will open a voluntary separation program this month and could turn to layoffs if needed.

“From time to time, sustaining our work effectively and efficiently requires the most difficult of decisions, which is to reduce our staff in certain areas of the Lab,” Zacharia wrote in the letter. “By reducing these positions, ORNL will be able to maintain competitive chargeout rates while freeing resources for discretionary investments that will modernize Lab infrastructure and maintain core research capabilities.”

Oak Ridge is DOE’s largest science and energy laboratory, with more than 4,600 employees. The Oak Ridge restructuring plan was approved by DOE after being proposed by UT-Battelle, which manages the lab.

Zacharia said the staff cuts would primarily affect employees who “charge to indirect accounts” as well as research staff affected by fiscal 2017 funding levels who cannot be placed elsewhere in the lab.

“Indirect accounts” refers to employees who charge their time to institutional overhead, instead of “direct” projects.

A voluntary separation program could avoid layoffs by allowing people to take early retirement.

Brookhaven National Laboratory also announced it would implement a voluntary reduction in staff over the next few months to cut 175 positions. It said all eligible employees who are approved will receive a severance package based on their years of service, plus benefits. After that, there could be layoffs, Brookhaven said.

“This staff reduction offers an opportunity for the laboratory to reduce its costs and redirect funding toward growth areas. This workforce restructuring will assure that the laboratory’s investment funds are fully aligned with the highest priority elements of strategy,” Brookhaven said in a statement.

Both labs said the overhaul was not related to President Trump’s proposed budget cuts for fiscal 2018, but the changes highlight what could happen if future funding reductions make it through Congress. Trump proposed an almost $1 billion cut to DOE’s Office of Science.

At a budget hearing in June, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told Energy Secretary Rick Perry that if Trump’s plan becomes law, staff at non-National Nuclear Security Administration labs could be cut by 23 percent. Oak Ridge would face a 33 percent cut, she said.

House and Senate appropriations bills moving for fiscal 2018 would not make those funding reductions. A bill that passed the House Appropriations Committee would keep funding flat at the Office of Science, while a Senate version would increase spending.

Yet there could be some budget cuts that affect the labs, depending on final congressional language.

An energy and water spending bill that advanced last month in the Senate would eliminate the U.S. contribution to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, a multinational project in France to demonstrate nuclear fusion at scale. Oak Ridge hosts the U.S. branch of the project.