Originally created 09/06/97

Energy Department holds off SRS layoffs



Nearly 100 federal employees at Savannah River Site drove to work Friday morning expecting to hear they'd been laid off.

But the pink slips never came.

At the last minute, the U.S. Energy Department in Washington decided to put the work force reduction on hold until Congress agrees on a budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

It was a reprise of the on-again, off-again layoff process involving hundreds of SRS contractor employees earlier this year.

In a memo to 15,000 staffers, Energy Secretary Federico Pena said things changed after recent conversations with key members of Congress who indicated Capitol Hill will send his agency enough money to save the jobs.

More than 1,500 Energy Department employees nationwide were expected to be laid off Friday.

South Carolina's two U.S. senators received telephone calls from department officials late Friday morning who told them the plan to cut 17 percent of SRS' federal staff was off - for now. The lawmakers, both of whom had called Mr. Pena this week to complain about the impending layoff, immediately took credit for the good news.

"We must not allow one of the nation's most valuable strategic resources to be sacrificed as a casualty in political and budget battles," U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., said in a prepared statement.

U.S. Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., appealed to the remainder of his state's congressional delegation to join the cause.

"We have an enormous battle with the House in front of us and I hope our South Carolina House colleagues will be able to lend a helping hand on this funding," he said.

The House has proposed to slash $100 million, or one-third of the money that covers Energy Department salaries. The Senate proposed cutting $15 million. Representatives from both chambers of Congress are expected to meet in conference committee in the next few weeks to hammer out a compromise.

U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said 58 of the 93 federal jobs expected to be trimmed at SRS under a "worst-case" budget scenario will be saved if Congress cuts no more than $55 million from the fund.

"We're going to lose 35 people no matter what," he said.

That's because SRS is considering cutting those jobs this year in anticipation of more budget reductions in fiscal 1999, said Energy Department spokesman Rick Ford.

"We know that in the next two years, we're going to have to reduce positions and we're looking at a variety of strategies to accommodate that," he said.

Mr. Graham was pleased the Energy Department decided to hang on to the pink slips, at least for a while longer.

"There's no use in scaring the hell out of people by telling them they're going to get laid off when they might not be," he said.

Dennis Ryan, a program manager whose job was on the list of federal positions to be trimmed, was among those who left work Friday feeling cautious.

"I'm just waiting to see what's going to happen," he said.