PNNL to lay off 45 this week

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldMarch 20, 2012 

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory plans to lay off 45 employees this week to adjust to the fiscal 2012 federal budget approved in late December.

It also has reduced retirement benefits in a move that lab officials say is tied to long-term costs rather than the current budget.

The Department of Energy national lab based in Richland employs 4,758 people and gets 93 percent of its budget from federal agencies. Because the job cuts could bring the total number of layoffs in a rolling 12 months to as many as 100, it needed to wait for final approval of a Workforce Restructuring Plan by DOE before it could move ahead with layoffs.

The plan was signed this weekend.

More layoffs related to the fiscal 2012 budget could be announced in the next few weeks or even months, but PNNL is hoping to keep the total under 100, as it has said previously.

"We believe we'll be able to manage some -- though certainly not all or even the majority -- of the needed reductions through natural attrition and a targeted self-select program," said PNNL spokesman Greg Koller.

The 45 layoffs that could come this week are in addition to almost 70 layoffs in the past 12 months, which included 23 voluntary layoffs. Only a couple of the 45 layoffs this week will be voluntary.

The layoffs are expected to be mostly in the lab's environmental and national security research sectors, plus in its acquisitions group, which is responsible for duties such as purchasing and contracting.

The reduction in environmental research is partly tied to reduced funding for Hanford-related research and a reduced investment by the DOE Office of Environmental Management Office in technology development.

Hanford-related work at PNNL has declined by about $25 million for the past year or two and now accounts for about 4 percent of the lab's budget rather than the 5 to 7 percent it accounted for in the past few years, Koller said.

PNNL is working to minimize future cuts to staff and budget, he said. That includes making sure that congressional leaders understand the impact of their budget decisions and the importance of national laboratories, including PNNL, in solving critical national challenges, he said.

"We recognize some tough choices have to be made to reduce the federal deficit and that science cannot be exempted from these discussions," Koller said. "But along with others we're communicating these reductions must be prioritized in a way that avoids irreparable harm to core research programs that are critical if we wish to sustain America's economic and innovation leadership."

Any layoff of staff is difficult, but PNNL remains in good shape, he said. That's due in part to the diversity of its research and its research in areas critical to the nation, including reducing dependence on imported oil and protecting the nation from acts of terrorism.

PNNL also has notified employees that it is reducing pension and 401(k) plans in a move that is unrelated to the fiscal 2012 budget, Koller said.

The changes came after concerns over costs of the retirement benefits led to an analysis of benefit packages at other national laboratories, universities and government agencies and in industry.

"The analysis showed that PNNL's retirement programs generally exceeded others in what they offered and in what they cost," Koller said.

PNNL believes that even with changes, its retirement package remains competitive as some companies are freezing their pension plans or not offering them at all. Hanford has moved to only a 401(k) plan for many new employees, for example.

Battelle, which manages PNNL for DOE, has reduced the possible 401(k) contribution to employee savings plans from a maximum of 4 percent to 3.5 percent.

The pension plan formula will change to a monthly benefit of 1.2 percent of average monthly eligible pay for the highest paid 60 months, multiplied by years of service, down from 1.6 percent. The change will be used to calculate benefits on service starting July 1 and previous benefits accrued will be retained.

The changes were needed to keep Battelle's retirement plan for PNNL staff affordable and viable in an era of rapidly increasing benefit costs, Koller said.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com

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