350 face layoffs at APL defense cuts are cited

March 28, 1995|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writers James M. Coram, Mark Guidera and Alisa Samuels contributed to this article.

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) -- one of the state's largest military contractors and Howard County's largest private employer -- announced yesterday that it will cut its work force by about 350 jobs because of defense-spending cutbacks.

The job cuts come just four months after APL officials dismissed layoff fears as "an ugly rumor." They will affect more than 200 of the laboratory's 2,750 full-time staff and about 140 of 700 contractual employees -- a work force heavily laden with high-tech researchers.

The layoffs, totaling about 10 percent of the lab's employees, are the first major job cuts in APL's history. They will not be completed until August, and managers will begin notifying those affected by the end of May.

"Everybody's really upset about it -- there's depression and unbelief," an APL employee who declined to be identified said yesterday.

Howard County officials said they were disappointed, though not all were surprised.

"Unfortunately, the way the economy is, it was not entirely unexpected," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who said he was told about the layoffs last week by APL officials. Still, he said, "it hurts."

APL officials said they had to cut jobs because of a projected $60 million drop in defense funding from what the lab received in 1994. "Only over the last month did it become a stark realization," said Helen Worth, an APL spokeswoman. "We realized we had a problem. We had pushed the decision off as long as we could."

The layoffs come as Maryland, long dependent on military spending, is being slammed by Pentagon cuts. Since the peak of defense employment in 1988, three of the state's leading military contractors -- Martin Marietta, Westinghouse and AAI Corp. -- have cut 12,000 jobs.

APL hasn't been immune. Two years ago, it cut 23 positions and left 100 others vacant after early retirements. But the current layoffs are the first widespread staff reduction in the lab's history.

The lab, founded in 1942, conducts high-level research on submarines, missiles and satellites. Its million-square-foot facility sits on 365 acres just south of Columbia and west of U.S. 29. It has been based in Howard since 1954, after a move from Silver Spring; about half its workers live in Howard.

The lab's most recent round of layoff rumors began at the end of last year, when APL was late in signing its annual contract with the U.S. Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command. That contract, which accounts for about 95 percent of APL's budget, totaled $440 million in 1994.

The Navy contract finally was renewed in January at a level that would have allowed up to $429 million in funding -- a drop of only about $11 million from the previous year. APL officials had hoped to get that full amount and to make up for the decline without layoffs.

But they now say that Navy and other government funding is expected to be just $407 million in 1995. Part of that was expected, because some projects are finished or nearly complete.

But APL also was hurt by the government's failure to go ahead with other projects that would have provided several years of funding.

Two weeks ago, for example, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration decided not to fund a satellite project that would have brought in $125 million to $150 million for the 1996 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

"We are seeing fewer programs that have long-term funding," said Robert Makofski, assistant director for program development. "It is very difficult to believe that there will be new projects to the amount that is needed."

During recent months, APL officials have been looking for nondefense work.

Officials said they have not decided where the layoffs will take place. Those decisions will be based on what programs are drawing the most funding and which staff members are significant contributors to the laboratory. Nearly 60 percent of the lab's workers are scientists or engineers, according to Dee Reese, another spokeswoman.

Ms. Reese said APL Director Dr. Gary L. Smith broke the news of the layoff plan to his department managers yesterday morning. The managers were told to come up with plans for scaling back their departments.

Employees, who said they had been told not to discuss the layoffs with the press, were still reeling from the news yesterday afternoon.

"Nobody's going to be neglected; every department will be hit," said one woman, who refused to be identified. "It's going to be rough."

Meanwhile, local officials voiced concern about the impact on Howard County's economy and the lab's employees.

"I guess APL knows what it's doing, but it's going hurt almost 400 families," said Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Democrat who represents APL's portion of the county.

Richard Story, director of the county Economic Development Authority, predicted that many laid-off employees may not easily find new jobs in the industry -- based on the history of others laid off from defense contractors.

He said his office would offer help to those losing jobs to find new employment or receive retraining for new careers.

At least one APL employee took a philosophical view yesterday, however. "If it has to be done, it has to be done," said the woman, who declined to be identified.

"It's unfortunate, but that's the way things are."

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