Layoffs to come at Michoud, Stennis Space Center as old vendor loses contract _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- Bobby Watkins, director of the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility, second from left, walks at the front of the NASA Facility in New Orleans earlier this month. A change in in one of the contractors at the facility will result in layoffs, but many of those workers are expected to be hired by the new contractor.

At least 805 workers at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans East and its John C. Stennis Space Center just across the Mississippi state line from Slidell will lose their jobs in January when their employer’s contract with NASA expires. However, many will likely be rehired by the new vendor, officials said Tuesday.

Out on Jan. 31 is Jacobs Technology, a Jacobs Engineering Inc. subsidiary that has offices in Louisiana but is headquartered in Tennessee. Coming in Feb. 1 is Syncom Space Services LLC, a joint venture of the Virginia-based PAE and BWXT Nuclear Operations Group Inc. that has local offices and managers.

The changeover comes after NASA combined the separate Michoud and Stennis contracts — both of which were held by Jacobs — into one contract, issued a request for proposals and ranked the applicants by mission suitability, cost and level of confidence in their past performance.

Jacobs and four other firms bid and lost. Syncom was the victor, to the dismay of Jacobs. The firm protested NASA’s decision to federal authorities in July, but the U.S. Government Accountability Office found Jacobs’ criticisms baseless.

That means that after Jacobs’ contract expires, 195 Louisiana residents who work at Michoud will be laid off, Jacobs Vice President and General Manager Bart Jones said in a Nov. 12 letter to Louisiana officials. So will 610 employees at Stennis, a number that is believed to include both Louisiana and Mississippi residents.

It’s not yet clear how many of those employees Syncom will rehire, partly because the new firm will adjust staffing throughout its $1.2 billion performance-based contract, expected to stretch over roughly 10 years, business development manager Meg Manthey said.

“However, (Syncom) anticipates hiring a high percentage of incumbent employees at both Michoud and Stennis,” she said. The firm will meet with employees in the coming weeks to discuss job opportunities.

At Michoud, the losses should be relatively modest, Director Bobby Watkins said. “I don’t think we are talking about hundreds. We may talk about tens, or 20s, or 50s, somewhere in that ballpark,” he said.

Jacobs employs about 350 people under its Michoud contract, some of whom work out of state, said Ron Kent, Jacobs’ head of labor management. He said Tuesday he did not know how many total employees currently work under the Stennis contract.

Louisiana Workforce Commission officials conducted classes and training on employment options with Jacobs’ Michoud employees last week, Kent said. Mississippi is ready to provide similar services to Stennis employees, Neal said.

Though Syncom announced its contract award in July, the coming upheaval came into sharper focus in November after Jacobs notified the Louisiana Workforce Commission and the Mississippi Department of Employment Security about its contract loss and impending layoffs under a federal law that requires such notice.

To longtime Michoud employees, this may all feel familiar. Jacobs snatched the coveted NASA contract in 2009 from Lockheed Martin, which had for years been Michoud’s lead tenant. Jacobs’ Michoud contract value at the time was put at $120.4 million for an initial three-year base period, with a one-year optional extension of $40.1 million and a second-year extension of $42.1 million.

Then, as is the case now, Jacobs agreed to retain many of the Lockheed workers. The company already was running Stennis’ affairs at the time.

In an interview Tuesday, Watkins, who began running Michoud this year, characterized the switch as a mere byproduct of doing business. Indeed, there was no mention of Jacobs’ exit when Watkins made a presentation to the New Orleans City Council on Tuesday. Instead, Watkins and council members focused on Michoud’s latest project, a Space Launch System rocket scheduled for deep space exploration by 2018.

That project has generated jobs for between 500 and 600 people, Watkins said.

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.