Center layoff deals county a fresh blow Washington Research eliminates 75 jobs at Columbia lab

'A difficult time'

W. R. Grace division trims payroll as area fights housing slump

November 15, 1995|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

In another blow to Howard County's economy, the Washington Research Center -- a division of W. R. Grace & Co. and one of the county's largest high-technology employers -- has cut its work force by about 16 percent.

Sixty-five employees, in a work force of almost 480, were laid off Nov. 7 by the Columbia-based company. An additional 10 will be let go by the end of the year.

"We were hit by two things at about the same time" -- corporate downsizing and the sale next year of Grace's large health-care subsidiary, National Medical Care Inc., said Joseph W. Raksis, a Grace vice president stationed in Columbia.

Washington Research -- the county's ninth-largest employer -- is the second Howard company in the past six months to lay off a substantial number of employees. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) laid off 258 employees in May.

Although Howard's economy is expanding, it is not growing at a pace that would allow scientists and engineers laid off at APL and Washington Research to be assimilated quickly into new jobs, said Richard W. Story, executive director of the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

"People are aware that jobs are tenuous," Mr. Story said. "They are not making long-term [financial] commitments."

As a result, the county real estate market has slowed and the average price of home sales has dropped. "There is not sufficient optimism to make a commitment of that magnitude," he said. "By and large, people are not buying houses in Howard County."

Mr. Story said he has put an "emergency response" plan into effect that will offer employment training, help with resume writing and the services of the county's Business Resource Center to displaced employees from Grace, APL and other area companies.

More local layoffs are likely. Maryland officials are projecting 20,000 layoffs statewide as a result of cutbacks in federal programs, Mr. Story said. He said those layoffs likely will have a ripple effect on such regional defense contractors as Westinghouse Electric Corp., Martin Marietta Corp. and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

Mr. Story said he expects APL "to hold at its current level" and believes that jobs at Allied Signal Technical Services -- the county's fourth-largest employer and the single largest subcontractor at Goddard Space Center -- probably are safe for now.

Allied is "good at diversifying" and has landed a couple of contracts in the $25 million range, he said.

Regardless, every scientific professional working for a defense contractor should be prepared for layoffs, Mr. Story said. He recommends they get in touch with the county's education and training center.

Grace's Washington Research Center in Columbia does research on new products and technology. But annual revenue of the parent company, based in Boca Raton, Fla., is expected to drop from about $5 billion to $4 billion or less when its health-care subsidiary is spun off, Mr. Raksis said.

"As the company shrinks, we [the local lab] shrink by a proportionate size," he said.

The second factor leading to layoffs at Washington Research is a corporate-wide "streamlining" in which Grace hopes to save $100 million by laying off 800 of its 20,000 employees.

The laid-off lab employees range from managers to Ph.D. scientists to technicians to support people, Mr. Raksis said. Washington Research is attempting to place some in other Grace divisions, he said.

Some employees, especially those who had come to Washington Research from the local work force, likely will find employment elsewhere in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, he said. But "highly trained Ph.D. scientists" that Washington Research had hired from throughout the world probably will have to move.

Severance packages ranged from a month's salary to two years' pay, depending on length of service, Mr. Raksis said.

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