Fear of Lawrence lab 'brain drain' over furlough
Rebecca Dylla-Spears and her husband, Brian Spears, began working at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory hoping the federal research facility would provide lifelong employment stable enough to raise a family.
But the government shutdown has changed that.
The couple, who are among the lab’s 7,500 civilian employees, will stop getting paychecks on Friday, after the contractor that runs the lab announced it would furlough employees during the partial government shutdown.
Dozens of scientists, researchers and technicians met near the lab Sunday to hear Rep. Eric Swalwell, who represents the lab and many of its employees, discuss what was happening.
“I am sorry for the position this has put you in,” the Democratic congressman from Dublin said.
Swalwell has already written the Department of Energy and the White House to ask them to promise back pay to any furloughed employees and asked the lab’s credit unions to offer interest-free loans to out-of-work employees.
Scientists at the Livermore Lab work on a variety of subjects, including nuclear energy and national security research.
“I am concerned that the cutting-edge work at our national laboratories … will stop,” Swalwell said.
But Swalwell said he also worried that instability at the federal lab would create “brain drain” where highly-qualified government scientists would flee to the private sector.
Dylla-Spears and her husband have already started looking for other options to support them and their two young daughters.
“That’s what making us the saddest about this, is that we’re going to have to look elsewhere,” said Dylla-Spears, a chemical engineer at the Livermore lab. “We’ve been spending our evenings looking at online resources for other jobs. We can’t afford to have both of us work at the lab.”
“We hoped when we first started here that we could grow our family while doing national research work,” added Spears, a physicist at the lab. “That foundation is shaken.”
At the community meeting, Swalwell said he understood the impact the government shutdown was having on lab employees.
But little will change until die-hard Republicans in Congress decide to reopen the government, Swalwell said.
Lab employees “shouldn’t be punished because you have a small faction that, through our Constitution, is able to tie up our budget,” Swalwell said.
Swalwell acknowledged that stopping paychecks to lab employees would hurt surrounding businesses and communities. The Livermore lab is one of the largest employers in the East Bay.
“You will also furlough your discretionary spending, and that will impact everyone,” Swalwell said.
Experiments at the lab must be wrapped up by Wednesday, and the lab’s lights will turn off on Friday.
Ken Reid, a curriculum director at the lab since 1979, said he appreciated hearing Swalwell explain the shutdown.
“It was better information than I’ve heard anywhere else,” Reid said. “The whole issue is it doesn’t help the stalemate.”
Gary Deis, a mechanical engineer at the lab for 31 years, said he was concerned the instability at the lab would scare young scientists away from government service.
“These days where everyone is mobile, they can just go somewhere else,” Deis said. “There is just no reason to have this kind of petty abuse.”