Hanford workers stuck in limbo as sequestration starts today

March 1, 2013 

Hanford contractors have told their employees they don't know what to expect with forced budget cuts, called sequestration, that are set to start today.

However, some employees might get news soon of layoffs or unpaid leave.

"We're currently assessing the potential impacts at Hanford and will know more early next week," said Cameron Hardy, DOE Hanford spokesman. "We anticipate impacts to our contractor work force, various projects and programs and a number of subcontracts for cleanup work at Hanford."

A letter is expected to be sent from DOE to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee early next week giving more details on the effects of sequestration at Hanford.

Then, contractors might be sent letters detailing cost cuts, which should result in better information about potential delays to environmental cleanup and impacts to contractor workers and subcontractors.

Inslee has said that the sequestration could not come at a worse time, given news that six Hanford underground tanks have newly been discovered to be leaking underground waste.

The Tri-Cities, because of its economic dependence on Hanford, will be disproportionately affected by the across-the-board federal budget costs, he said at a news conference this week.

Department of Energy employees in the Tri-Cities are not expected to be laid off or forced to take furloughs, or unpaid leave, after DOE looked for savings in training, supplies, contracts, grants and expenditures in recent weeks.

However, "DOE contractors may need to take significant employment actions across the complex as a result of funding cuts," Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman said in a memo Thursday. "The specific impacts will depend upon those contractors' decisions, but we expect that thousands of contractor employees will likely be affected through work hour reductions or layoffs unless the sequester is remedied."

The almost 9,000 workers at Hanford mostly are employed by contractors, with several hundred working directly for DOE.

Because the law requires that budget cuts be spread evenly across DOE programs, DOE's flexibility to prioritize activities or lessen the impact of cuts is severely limited, Poneman said.

Hanford, as a defense environmental cleanup site, could fall under required cuts of 8 percent for defense programs. However, because the cuts must be made only during the last seven months of fiscal 2013, the effective percentage reductions could be about 13 percent, according to information released by the White House.

In updated information released Wednesday by the White House Office of Management and Budget, agencies were told that by now they should "be actively and continuously communicating with affected stakeholders -- including state, localities, tribal governments, federal contractors, federal grant recipients and federal employees -- regarding elements of the agency's planning that have a direct impact on these groups."

The most concrete information offered to date about possible sequestration effects at Hanford has come in a report by the House Appropriations Committee Democrats. It said that 1,000 Hanford workers could be furloughed for six weeks and environmental cleanup work would slow.

The White House memo also said some contracts might need to be canceled, but that agencies should minimize the impact on small businesses. It advised caution in hiring new workers, awarding bonuses and incurring new costs for training, conferences and travel.

If layoffs or furloughs are being considered for union workers, unions must be consulted before decisions are made and collective bargaining agreements followed, the memo said.

Hanford contractors sent out messages to their employees this week, some telling them to report to work Monday. Today is a day off for many Hanford employees.

Scenarios being considered include furloughs and layoffs, but without funding levels being known Thursday, the impacts could not be determined, several memos said. Contractors have been providing forecasts and information based on possible scenarios to DOE, but if decisions have been made they have not been made public.

Whether budget cuts remain in effect for a few weeks, months or the rest of the year is unknown, Bechtel National employees were told. It could be a few days to a few weeks before Bechtel receives guidance from DOE to determine the impact on the vitrification plant under construction, according to a memo sent to employees.

However, Bechtel considered the possibility of sequestration when it planned for the current fiscal year, the Bechtel memo to employees said.

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