With the federal budget under pressure, Oak Ridge National Laboratory has permission to reduce its staff by up to 475 employees, but officials hope they don’t have to make that many cuts.
The workforce reduction could come through what is known as a voluntary separation program, or VSP. Those who apply and are accepted would leave the payroll Dec. 31, ORNL Communications Director David Keim said Thursday.
Keim said the lab had to ask the U.S. Department of Energy for permission to make the cuts, and ORNL sought the highest number of possible reductions.
“We certainly hope that that many reductions are not required,” Keim said. “We’re giving ourselves a big cushion.”
He said the lab doesn’t have a target number of cuts. It depends upon how the federal budget debate in Washington, D.C., plays out, Keim said.
“Our goal, as it has been with previous VSPs, is to prepare for tighter federal budgets while continuing to engage in breakthrough science and discovery,” Keim said. “We want to assure that ORNL continues to be well-managed and productive for our national missions.”
Keim said the lab’s budget this year had been about $1.6 billion but could actually come in closer to $1.5 billion. In Fiscal Year 2014, which starts Oct. 1, it could fall to $1.4 billion, he said.
“All of that is uncertain right now,” Keim said. “Certainly, we hope that changes will be minimal, and we have to prepare as best we can despite the uncertainties.”
Those who could apply for the VSP would be employees of UT-Battelle, which manages the lab, and those most likely to be affected include support personnel and those funded by overhead costs, Keim said. The lab tries to maintain a 60/40 split between directly funded positions and those covered by overhead costs. ORNL wants most workers to be directly involved in research, science, discovery, and innovation, Keim said.
What employees receive through the VSP depends upon their years of service and other factors such as age. Some could be eligible for retirement. Full-time salaried employees would receive one week’s pay for each year of full-time service up to a maximum of 25 years.
Keim said he couldn’t answer a question about whether any layoffs might be required until the lab sees what the VSP yields.
“Among our goals is to reduce the economic impact on the community,” Keim said. “A lot of these folks are going to retire relatively soon anyway. We are hopeful that there is a minimal impact on this community.”
Keim said 159 employees left the payroll in Fiscal Year 2011, and 220 left in Fiscal Year 2012 through voluntary separations. ORNL has close to 4,500 workers, and it is DOE’s largest multidisciplinary science lab.
An article posted on the Science magazine website said DOE’s Office of Science, which runs 10 national labs, took a 5 percent budget hit this year as part of the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. The reduction, required by the failure of policymakers to abide by the terms of a 2011 law designed to reduce the federal deficit over the next decade, reduced the lab’s budget this year by $100 million, to $1.5 billion, the site reported.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
Note: This story was last updated at 4:28 p.m.