A day after the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena announced it will be laying off about 530 people, workers are expected to be notified Wednesday — with JPL Director Laurie Leshin instructing most employees to work from home so they can “be in a safe, comfortable environment on a stressful day.”
The layoffs were announced Tuesday in a cost-cutting measure that will also include the elimination of about 40 contractors. It was a move that drew condemnation from California Congressional representatives from both sides of the aisle, as well as calls for the space agency to reverse course.
“The impacts will occur across both technical and support areas of the lab,” according to a JPL statement. “These are painful but necessary adjustments that will enable us to adhere to our budget allocation while continuing our important work for NASA and our nation.”
The 530 layoffs represent about 8% of the lab’s total staffing.
Leshin broke to the news in a memo to lab workers Tuesday, writing, “These cuts are among the most challenging that we have had to make even as we have sought to reduce our spending in recent months.”
Leshin noted that while the lab awaits word from Congress on funding for the much-publicized Mars Sample Return mission — an effort to retrieve soil and rock samples collected by a Mars rover and return them to Earth for study — officials were already under the gun to cut costs, leading to a hiring freeze, a reduction in some MSR mission contracts, budget cuts and elimination of some on-site contractors.
She noted that NASA previously told JPL to expect an MSR budget of $300 million, a 63% drop from the previous year.
“Unfortunately, those actions alone are not enough for us to make it through the remainder of the fiscal year,” Leshin wrote. “So in the absence of an appropriation, and as much as we wish we didn’t need to take this action, we must now move forward to protect against even deeper cuts later were we to wait.”
Those who are laid off will continue receiving their salary for 60 days, and those who are eligible will also be offered severance packages, transitional benefits including placement services “and other benefits resource information,” JPL said.
“To our colleagues who will be leaving JPL, I want you to know how grateful I am for the exceptional contributions you have made to our mission and our community,” Leshin wrote. “Your talents leave a lasting mark on JPL. You will always be a part of our story and you have made a positive difference here.
“This is by far the hardest action I have had to take since becoming director of JPL, and I know I join all of you in wishing it was not necessary. We will always value our colleagues who are leaving the Laboratory and they will be missed as we go forward. For those continuing on JPL’s journey, we will come through this difficult time and keep moving ahead on our essential missions, research, and technology work for NASA and the nation.”
Following Tuesday’s announcement, there was swift and bipartisan criticism of the layoffs from members of California’s Congressional delegation.
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, issued a statement saying she was “disappointed.”
“These cuts will devastate workers and Southern California in the short-term, and they hurt the long-term viability of not just our Mars Exploration Program but also many years of scientific discovery to come,” Chu said.
“I’m not done, however, helping lead the fight with my California colleagues in Congress to reverse NASA’s premature and misguided budget cuts to the Mars Sample Return Mission. I’m hopeful in the coming weeks we can work to broker a deal with the Administration and Congress to restore funding to the levels necessary to rehire workers and promote the kinds of scientific discovery JPL has been on the front lines of for decades.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, issued a statement later Tuesday offering similar sentiments.
“Today’s announcement that JPL will be forced to cut 530 jobs is a devastating blow to the talented men and women working on the Mars Sample Return mission, and to our nation’s leadership in space exploration and scientific innovation,” Schiff said.
“This unnecessary forced reduction by NASA not only undermines our commitment to the highest scientific priority in this field, but also jeopardizes the livelihoods of dedicated professionals who have contributed immensely to our understanding of the universe.
“The fact that NASA put JPL in the position to have to undertake such cuts flies in the face of Congressional intent and raises real concerns about our budgeting process for projects of this magnitude. The people behind our nation’s greatest achievements in space exploration deserve our support and commitment — not to lose their jobs because of a political decision.”
Schiff went on to say, “I will be doing everything possible to restore the funding of this critical mission and retain this remarkable workforce. This will not be the end of this mission or this matter.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Santa Clarita, issued a statement urging the White House “to reverse this misguided decision to move forward with funding cuts to the Mars Sample Return mission.”
“This premature, unprecedented decision needs to be reversed,” Garcia said. “The changes to NASA’s budget are unfounded and short-sighted, and the consequences are devastating: Hundreds of hard-working Californians laid off, billions of dollars in canceled contracts, and decades of lost science.
“It’s not too late to right this wrong, but the White House needs to immediately adjust these funding levels to promote the MSR program, advance our national security priorities in space, and keep America at the forefront of scientific achievement.”
Congress, not the White House, approves budgets and allocates funding for NASA and JPL projects.
Garcia also noted that, in November, he joined members of the state Congressional delegation in a bipartisan letter to NASA Administrator Clarence Nelson expressing “strong opposition to the reprogramming of NASA’s MSR budget.”
“NASA’s deeply short-sighted and misguided decision to unilaterally adjust the funding allocation granted to JPL to carry out the MSR mission violates Congress’s appropriations authority,” the letter said.
“Therefore, we strongly urge you to rescind NASA’s November 8th funding directive to JPL and not take any further steps to adjust funding levels for the mission until Congress enacts final FY24 appropriations for NASA.”