Howard County's largest private employer is fighting for financial stability, even as the economic ground shifts beneath it.
A year ago, federal defense cuts sent officials at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) scrambling to find enough new work to prevent layoffs at the 3,200-worker lab near Laurel. They failed -- and 258 workers went out the door in May, the first major layoff in the high-tech research lab's 53-year history.
This year, things are different, officials insist.
APL expects to get about $390 million in funding -- well below the peak of $466.8 million two years ago, but only $6 million less than last year. Lab officials consider that a minor cut and say that if the projection holds, they do not expect more layoffs.
But some workers remain nervous. Congress has yet to allocate defense funding for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1, leaving APL's short-and long-term projections uncertain. And the scars from this year's layoffs remain fresh and painful.
"Everybody is feeling uncomfortable," said one worker, who did not want to have her name published, saying she feared for her job. "Are we concerned about our jobs? Yes. All of us in our department have tried to make sure we have the correct skills to get the job done."
Others, however, say they are secure for the next year or two because they are working on long-term projects that are important to APL and the military.
"I'm personally in good shape," said 38-year-old Arbutus resident James Sylvester, a computer programmer who has worked at APL for eight years and is working on a naval warfare analysis project. "I know that the Navy's interested in this."
Since the peak of defense employment in 1988, Pentagon cutbacks have led to 13,200 layoffs in Maryland. The majority of those came from the Westinghouse Electric Corp. division in Linthicum, which lost 8,400 jobs, including 1,000 last month.
APL officials and analysts say the lab's primary focus on research and development -- rather than on military hardware -- insulates it from the severe cuts suffered by many corporate defense contractors.
"The research side has not taken the same hit as the procurement side," said David Napier, an analyst with the Aerospace Industries Association, a Washington-based trade group.
But APL officials remain cautious, despite what they view as a stable roster of contracts and a generally secure picture for research and development projects.
"There are still uncertainties with what Congress will do," said Dr. Gary Smith, APL's director. "We don't have a crystal ball. We're reasonably optimistic, given all that has happened. But we're not so optimistic that we're relaxing."
Although APL has received no funding assurances from the military or the federal government, the lab has advocates on Capitol Hill, including Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, the 6th District Republican who represents the Laurel area.
Mr. Bartlett, who worked at APL from 1962 to 1967, sits on the House Armed Services and the Science, Space and Technology committees. He and other members of Congress visited APL about three weeks ago because, he said, the lab is important to military and other government research.
"What's happening in the budget should not negatively affect APL," Mr. Bartlett said. "Their mission is not in jeopardy. APL is a very valuable resource that we in the Congress are anxious to have some access to."
APL sits on 365 acres near Laurel and conducts high-level research on submarines, missiles and satellites -- mostly for the Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command.
The laboratory has been known as a national resource for defense and satellite studies since 1942, when it developed a fuse used in Navy anti-aircraft shells. As its importance to military research increased, so did its funding -- particularly during the defense buildup under Presidents Reagan and Bush.
APL's funding continued at a high level well into the 1990s -- long after other hardware-oriented contractors were forced to lay off workers as the federal government scaled back defense spending.
Last year, however, APL took its turn on the chopping block. 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. Other long-term contracts fell short of what had been expected.
Even as they said publicly that no layoffs were expected, APL officials undertook a crash campaign to nail down new or expanded contracts to make up a projected 17 percent funding loss.
"We knew that if the projection held, that we would have to take severe steps -- we aren't stupid," recalled Dr. Smith. "But we were hoping. We hadn't had to do this before. This was a new experience for this laboratory."