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Federal Diary

Union Protests NASA's Plans to Cut Jobs, Reorganize Research Centers

By Stephen Barr
Monday, February 28, 2005; Page B02

N ASA plans to cut 2,673 civil service jobs and restructure research center operations over the next 18 months, according to agency briefing papers.

The planned downsizing is being protested by the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, AFL-CIO, which provided reporters with a Feb. 14 briefing paper on what the agency calls "workforce/institutional transformation."

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In a letter to the House Science Committee on Friday, the union president, Gregory Junemann, said the NASA plan would "irreversibly harm" the agency's space exploration program and make "future recruitment of talent much more difficult."

A NASA spokeswoman said she had not seen the union letter and would not comment.

The issue of NASA downsizing bubbled up last week at a Science Committee hearing on the agency's budget plans.

In a telephone interview after the hearing, James L. Jennings, an associate NASA administrator, said the agency's budget plan for fiscal 2007 does not include funding for about 2,000 employees.

He said the budget plan was somewhat preliminary, in part because programs to support the international space station and the president's moon-to-Mars initiative have not been fully defined.

Jennings said that an effort is underway to identify the workforce skills needed to carry out President Bush's vision for space exploration and that the effort will probably involve moving work from some research centers to others.

"By the end of the summer, we will have an idea of what the real issues are," he said.

But a Feb. 10 headquarters briefing paper and briefing papers prepared at two research centers suggest that NASA officials are scrambling for money to finance the president's plan and have identified cuts in the workforce and at some centers to help make a down payment. The papers were provided by a NASA employee on the condition that he would not be identified. The employee said he feared reprisal by NASA management.

The Feb. 10 briefing paper identifies "excess capacity" at NASA centers and the number of employees who will be eligible to retire through fiscal 2006. The paper lists various targets for workforce reductions, including 780 employees at Langley Research Center, 727 at Marshall Space Flight Center, 660 at Glenn Research Center and 353 at Ames Research Center.

One briefing paper, a Feb. 7 budget presentation prepared by the Glenn center, suggests that some of the reductions are sought by the Office of Management and Budget. Instead of cutting 500 full-time employees by 2010, "the agency's response to the OMB passback resulted in our workforce challenge increasing to approx 700 FTE by 2007," the paper said.

The Feb. 10 paper lists 3,127 NASA employees as eligible to retire, more than enough to meet the downsizing target. But the paper points out that relatively few NASA employees retire when first eligible. In that case, the paper says, "transformation tools will be used to incentivize results."

In addition to retirements, NASA plans to offer cash buyouts and sponsor job fairs to help employees find work elsewhere. The agency plans to review existing contract work and determine whether some facilities could be closed, the Feb. 14 paper shows.

If voluntary methods do not work, the paper indicates that NASA will use "directed reassignments" to move employees. Employees who balk at such orders can be fired.

Layoffs will be NASA's last resort, apparently because they are costly and disruptive and usually draw the attention of Congress.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland is targeted to lose only 15 employees, and Johnson Space Center is targeted for five job cuts, according to the Feb. 10 briefing paper. Both centers have fierce political protectors -- Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).

Jennings said political considerations are not a part of NASA planning efforts. "This decision is totally programmatic . . . matching workforce to mission requirements," he said.

In letters to Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Science Committee, and Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, the committee's ranking Democrat, the union urged increased oversight of NASA.

Any "reprogramming of civil servant salary money" must be studied and vetted by Congress, Junemann said.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com

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