Columbia Firm's Layoffs Made As Gentle As Possible

May 05, 1991|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff writer

Pharmacia Diagnostics Inc. is about to sell a breakthrough in AIDS and hepatitis testing. Unfortunately for about 80 of its employees in Columbia, the company plans to sell that idea to a competitor and eliminate their jobs Friday.

The layoffs will transform Pharmacia, once one of the county's major employers with 250 workers in Howard County, into a much smaller concern, employing fewer than 60.

Pharmacia is scaling back after deciding it could no longer compete with larger manufacturers of blood-testing equipment.

The company had just developed a state-of-the-art test that would allow lab technicians to screen one blood sample for both hepatitis and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, instead of the two separate tests now used.

Yet just as the company was about to get ahead in the difficult game of biotechnology, the rules changed.

A form of AIDS virus rare in the United States, known as HIV-2, began showing up, which spurred large competitors to develop tests that screen for HIV-1 and HIV-2 simultaneously.

Because Pharmacia's test does not include HIV-2, blood banks buying its test would be forced to do two tests anyway, so its advantage was eliminated.

"We've come up with a prototype for screening all three," said Marjorie Weir, the scientist who ran the research and development program that developed the test.

But problems with obtaining permission to include a patented HIV-2 test made the prospect seem too costly and time-consuming for a relatively small diagnostics company to pursue, Weir said.

Weir, a Hickory Ridge village resident, will follow her colleagues

into unemployment in part because the test lost much of its marketing potential before it gained U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, which may take another year.

The difficulty of keeping up with large companies, such as the market-dominating Abbot Laboratories, is what prompted Pharmacia to dismantle its Blood Virus Division, said Larry Deans, executive vice president for human resources at the company's Fairfield, N.J. headquarters.

The company is a subsidiary of the Sweden-based Pharmacia Biosystems, which had $6.1 billion in sales last year and employs about 45,000 employees worldwide.

The company will close the 43,000-square-foot research and development facility it built in 1982, the first building in the Rivers Corporate Park in Kings Contrivance Village, and its suite of administrative offices nearby.

The company's warehouse-distribution facility on Red Branch Road in Columbia and its manufacturing laboratories in the Montgomery Industrial Park inSilver Spring will remain open.

The layoffs will leave 53 employees in Columbia and 35 in Silver Spring.

Many of the 20 or so biotechnology professionals have found jobs or are considering offers fromthe National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, where the company gotits start in 1969.

Others have gone to private firms in Howard County, Baltimore and Frederick, said Peter Sottong, Pharmacia Diagnostics' director of technical operations.

"The remaining lab we have in Silver Spring will continue to support research and development sales to the National Institutes of Health and will also continue to produce a number of diagnostic kits for various infectious diseases," but not HIV and hepatitis, he said.

In a show of support for the laid-off workers, the company hired the nation's largest human resources firm, New York-based Drake Beam Morin Inc., to set up an employee assistance center.

The company also gave the workers 60 days' notice and one week's pay for every year worked as severance.

"This is not typical," said center manager Reesa Woolf, who explained that employee assistance centers are rare and typically operated only by larger companies such as IBM and General Electric, which is running such a center for the employees it laid off in its former Columbia appliance park.

Even Baltimore insurance giant USF&G, which hired DB&M todo seminars after its recent layoffs, did not pay for a center, which Deans said cost Pharmacia "six figures."

Counselors at the center give advice on preparing resumes and cover letters, doing interviews and negotiating for salaries, while providing such resources as an array of daily newspapers, job listings and career catalogs.

"I would say that most of the people who have been impacted by all of thishave availed themselves of the center," Sottong said.

Even professionals have benefited from the assistance.

"Two people have actually gotten jobs and gone ahead and left," Weir said of the scientists, while others are still looking or mulling offers.

Weir herself has had several offers, but she has been asked to stay on temporarily to help the company transfer the Blood Virus Division's patented research, trade secrets and production techniques to the company that buys them.

The company started as Electronucleonics Inc., which conducted cancer research work in Bethesda for the National Institutes of Health.

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