Hanford workers could get furlough notices this week

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldOctober 14, 2013 

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Workers are shown here at Hanford's C Tank Farm, where radioactive waste is being emptied from leak-prone underground tanks.

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Hanford workers could start receiving furlough notices Wednesday because of the federal government shutdown, according to the Tri-City Development Council.

Depending on how long the shutdown drags on, about 9,000 Hanford and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory workers could be put on temporary leave or laid off, TRIDEC estimates.

It sent a letter late last week to Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., with copies to other Washington congressional leaders, outlining the pending cutbacks and then updated the numbers as it learned more Monday.

"I am asking personally, on behalf of TRIDEC and the Tri-Cities community, for our congressional offices to take the lead and find some kind of compromise to end this shutdown," said the letter signed by Carl Adrian, TRIDEC president, and Gary Petersen, TRIDEC vice president of federal programs.

The number of people who would be affected at Hanford and PNNL could be large, if Congress does not act quickly, Adrian said.

It would not be a permanent loss of jobs for the community, but would have a personal impact on the many workers who could be furloughed and local businesses likely would see less spending while those people are out of work, Adrian and Petersen said.

Furloughed workers may be able to claim vacation time, if they have any remaining after last year's forced federal budget cuts, called sequestration. It led to furloughs and requirements to use up extra vacation time, reducing the amount of vacation workers have now.

The Department of Energy has released no specific information about how the federal government shutdown will be handled at Hanford if it continues.

Last week DOE released a statement saying that if a resolution to the federal government shutdown is not achieved in the near term, DOE will be forced to take further action to shut down nonessential operations and furlough federal and federal contractor employees.

With no federal budget for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1, Hanford has been operating largely on money carried over from previous years. However, the last fiscal year had a tight budget because of sequestration.

Based on what is being announced for other DOE sites, TRIDEC believes that about 80 percent of Hanford staff could be furloughed to reach the minimum staffing level needed to maintain safety and security, a level called minimum safe at Hanford.

However, TRIDEC has heard that Hanford contractors also have been asked to prepare plans to put up to 85 percent of workers on furlough to achieve what DOE calls an "imminent harm" level of staffing.

Hanford has about 8,500 workers who have been issued security badges plus an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 additional workers without security badges who are providing services or goods through subcontractors.

Hanford spends about $400 million annually on work or goods provided by subcontractors, rather than contractors employed directly by DOE. The amount spent on subcontracts dropped last year and now it appears that most subcontractor work could be halted, according to TRIDEC.

It's unclear how Hanford union workers performing environmental cleanup would be affected, since they may be laid off with notice but their collective bargaining agreements prohibit furloughs.

TRIDEC also is concerned that there has been some discussion about whether there is enough money to cover worker benefits while employees are furloughed.

At Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a DOE lab, up to 35 employees are expected to be furloughed this week. But if the federal shutdown continues the number of employees furloughed would escalate each week.

The lab's budget is far more complex than that of Hanford, which receives about $2 billion annually from the DOE budget.

The lab has an annual budget of about $1 billion that comes from some money provided for overhead, but much of it is from DOE and other programs that choose to have research done at the lab and grants awarded to lab researchers.

The lab's goal is to keep at least parts of the lab open for as long as possible, including keeping long-term research projects viable.

However, elsewhere in the nation some federal labs are shutting down all operations not needed for security and safety. The national lab in Richland is part of DOE's Office of Science, but DOE National Nuclear Security Administration labs have been directed to be prepared to shut down by Oct. 21.

"This is undoubtedly a very difficult and stressful time for Hanford workers and their families who are responsible for the tremendous cleanup progress of the past decade," Hastings said in a statement Monday.

He said he remains focused on a solution that reopens the federal government as quickly as possible, reduces unnecessary spending along with the debt and minimizes impacts to Hanford and PNNL workers.

Furloughs at Hanford are one of the reasons Sen. Patty Murray has been working to end the shutdown, Murray said in a statement Monday.

"I've spent my entire career working to ensure timely and adequate Hanford budgets because I know how painful a lapse in funding would be to the community, our environment and the legal and moral obligations we have to cleanup efforts," she said. "I am committed to working to end this crisis."

The Senate has had some positive bipartisan discussions centered around a deal to end the shutdown, Murray said, adding that she hopes the House will join the Senate in the coming days to reach an agreement that will keep Hanford workers on the job.

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

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