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."
By March, however, the additional work hadn't materialized. The lab eventually suffered a $70.9 million funding cut for the year. And on March 27, officials announced plans to lay off 210 full-time workers and 140 contractors, notifying specific employees in May.
"We were more hopeful than circumstances turned out to warrant," said Dr. Smith. The result was "a very painful experience -- not something we welcomed, not something that's common."
There are some major differences this year, he said. For one thing, the lab's existing contracts appear secure at about the same level as last year, Dr. Smith said. No major projects are still up in the air or in danger of falling through.
In addition, the lab is intensifying an effort begun in 1991 to find nondefense research to supplement its military work.
That includes research projects worth $8.6 million for the U.S. Department of Transportation; an anti-counterfeiting project with the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing; and a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority project that would help blind subway riders.
In the wake of last year's layoffs, the work force is leaner, Dr. Smith said, and the lab's hiring practices more conservative.
"Every job offer, at all levels, I sign off on," he said.
Economy moves are in the works. APL management is cutting sick leave, although officials would not give details about how much time was being cut from the sick leave benefit. Lights and computers not in use will be turned off at night and on weekends.
Changes also are about to take place in the way the laboratory's contracts are administered.
In the last fiscal year, all but $12.6 million of the $396 million APL received came through its umbrella contract with the Navy, including work being done for the other services and other government agencies.
This year, instead of funneling most funds through the Navy contract, about $280 million is expected to go through the Navy, and about $110 million through 250 other agencies for which the lab conducts research. Last year, the Navy allocated only $251.3 million to APL.
The Navy also has cut APL's funding ceiling -- basically a credit line that gives lab officials an idea how much they can spend on projects -- by $46 million. But they say the ceiling levels on other contracts will more than make up for that, allowing them to spend all the funds they expect to receive.
All of this is part of what APL officials say is a profound change in the defense industry. "For the first time since World War II, we are entering into an era of demobilization -- that has had profound impact," said Dr. Smith.
But he is confident that APL can weather the change. "We may not be out of the woods, but as far as we know, we are not expecting another [layoff]," he said.
Still, some workers say they're still concerned about their futures. "I feel a little insecure because of the whole market," said a 10-year APL employee who lives in East Columbia's Owen Brown village and asked not to be identified. "I think that's a fairly prevalent feeling."