ORNL prepares for possible temporary shutdown, unpaid furloughs

Oak Ridge National Laboratory Central Campus

Officials at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, pictured above, are preparing for a possible temporary shutdown and unpaid furloughs in case Congress is unable to pass a federal spending bill. (Courtesy Oak Ridge National Laboratory/U.S. Dept. of Energy)

Oak Ridge National Laboratory has enough funding to continue operating through this month and into November, but officials are preparing for a possible temporary shutdown and unpaid furloughs, Director Thom Mason told employees Monday.

The potential shutdown of ORNL would be triggered by Congress’ failure to pass a spending bill in the fiscal year that began Tuesday, Oct. 1. The federal government has already partially shut down, and the Y-12 National Security Complex started an “orderly shutdown” Monday.

Before the Sept. 30 end of the last fiscal year, the U.S. Department of Energy had told federal employees to continue reporting for work in the new fiscal year unless there is a lapse in appropriations and all available money is spent. And Mason told employees of UT-Battelle, which manages the lab, to report to work starting Oct. 1, even if the government shut down, because ORNL had enough funding to continue operating.

But it’s not clear how long the federal shutdown might last. House Republicans and Senate Democrats, joined by President Barack Obama, are locked in a dispute over whether to delay the individual mandate in the new Affordable Care Act—referred to by critics as “Obamacare”—as part of a federal spending bill. Republicans have insisted on a one-year delay of the mandate, as well as a repeal of a medical device tax, but Democrats want a clean spending bill with no changes to the controversial health care law, the president’s signature domestic initiative.

In a message to employees on Monday, Mason said “carryover funds” from previous years at ORNL will continue to shrink as the shutdown continues, giving the lab less flexibility to maintain normal operations.

“We currently project ORNL’s carryover will allow us to operate through October and into November,” Mason said. “However, soon thereafter, furloughs will be required, and all of us should prepare to go without pay during a furlough period. The specific timing of furloughs will depend on factors including our ability to conserve funds now. The impacts will ripple through ORNL and the community at large despite our best efforts to minimize the damage. Our management of costs in these next days and weeks will have a very real effect on our ability to delay furloughs.”

Mason asked lab employees to continue deferring and eliminating expenses such as travel, conferences, and subcontracts whenever possible.

“If we do reach a point when furloughs are necessary, we will maintain a small skeleton crew to ensure our facilities are safe, compliant, and secure during a shutdown,” Mason said. “These people will be identified by management at the appropriate time. The rest of us will be prohibited from accessing the laboratory. Again, I will let you know as soon as possible when operations could cease. In the meantime, be sure to consider the potential for lower take-home pay in your household’s financial planning this fall.

“These are clearly unusual times, but I remain optimistic that in the long run the important work we do will be continued,” he said. “Please continue to focus on operating the lab and conducting your research safely and effectively. We certainly hope Congress reaches agreement soon.”

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