Thursday, July 28, 2011

Shutdown also puts hundreds of FAA contract employees out of work

Karen Vargas is keenly aware that the Federal Aviation Administration is heading into Day Six of a shutdown that has left hundreds of local employees unpaid. That’s because 14 employees from her Galloway-based business, A3 Technology Inc., have been left without work.

That’s significant for a company with just 35 employees, she said.

A3 Technology has a $7.9 million contract for providing a range of technical laboratory services at the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township. The contract is one of 25 at the tech center given a “stop-work order” since the FAA shutdown went into effect late last week. Vargas received word that her contract would be halted Monday night.

“As each day goes on, more and more people are subject to furloughs. It’s a difficult situation,” said Vargas, president and CEO of A3 Technology. “I’ve tried to communicate with our contracting officers at the FAA, but they’ve been furloughed, too, so communication is very sporadic. It’s difficult to get information.”

Nearly 4,000 FAA employees nationwide were furloughed last week after Congress failed to approve an extension of the agency’s operating authority. Unable to agree on long-term funding legislation for the FAA since 2007, Congress has kept the agency operating through a series of 20 short-term extension bills, the latest of which expired at midnight July 22.

Lack of action has left about 640 tech center employees temporarily out of work, but that total doesn’t include the number of furloughed contracted employees, such as those with Vargas’ company. About half of the 3,000 workers at the tech center are contracted employees, the other half are FAA employees. A spokesman for the agency could not provide an estimate of the number of contracted employees who have been affected.

Many of the FAA’s local furloughed employees were working on research and implementation of the NextGen Air Traffic Control System, a host of initiatives designed to upgrade the nation’s system from ground-based to satellite-based. The Egg Harbor Township center acts as the testing facility for those technologies.

“The real-world implications of congressional inaction are serious. People are out of work and the FAA cannot conduct necessary work to keep our aviation system competitive and moving forward,” FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said in a written statement.

The FAA expects to issue additional stop-work orders in the next few days as each contract the agency has is reviewed.

About 10 of the 15 employees at HiaSun, a Mays Landing company that provides technical support to the FAA, have been left without work after a stop-work order was issued on a $3.6 million contract for pavement testing at the tech center.

Linwood-based JDS Management Services, which provides safety assessments and management support, has seen seven of its 12 employees affected by the shutdown. Two of the company’s contracts, worth a combined $9.8 million, have been halted.

President and CEO Donna Sims said the shutdown has jeopardized small businesses that contract with the FAA. Her employees working on the halted contracts will get paid only if they take vacation time, she said.

“We would just like the opportunity to do the best we can to provide service to our federal government,” Sims said. “Everybody is anxious. We just don’t know if it’s going to be one week, two weeks or anything else.”

FAA employees at the tech center are also anxious to get back to work, said Robert Challender, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 200. The union represents 14 of the tech center employees who have been furloughed. Those employees work on hardware and software engineering, and field support and restoration of the national airspace system.

“To have 14 of approximately 360 employees in our local furloughed for ideological differences is unconscionable. We urge Congress to ensure these employees are made whole by receiving back pay and benefits for time lost,” Challender said in a written statement. “Much of the work of those exempt from the furlough will languish since our coworkers are forced to remain home.”

Wednesday night, the state’s Democratic senators, Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, announced that they are cosponsoring a bill that would provide FAA employees with backpay and allow them to continue working with pay and benefits funded through an aviation trust fund as Congress works to pass an extension.

“This bill would ensure that New Jersey’s FAA employees can get back to work and continue making progress on the groundbreaking technology being developed at the tech center,” Lautenberg said in a statement.

The shutdown occurred after Congress was unable to resolve a partisan dispute regarding amendments placed on the funding bill by the U.S. House of Representatives. House Republicans added a provision eliminating $16.5 million in subsides for airline service to 13 rural airports in 10 states. None of the airports are in New Jersey.

Representatives from the Aerospace Industries Association, a trade organization that represents a number of the affected contractors, including New York City-based L3 Communications that contracts with the tech center, said the shutdown could have significant long-term effects on NextGen’s implementation.

Dan Elwell, AIA’s vice president of civil aviation, said the shutdown has left the aviation industry wary of what the funding levels will be when they are approved. The FAA has set a tentative goal of 2020 for implementation of NextGen equipment into the national airspace system. Elwell predicted that funding issues coupled with the recent shutdown could set NextGen progress back from one to three years.

“Some of the projects at the Hughes center are linchpin, foundational projects. You don’t launch the system until those are complete,” Elwell said. “We’re talking about a system that will bring hundreds of billions of dollars in economic benefits.”

The shutdown has also delayed $44.7 million in FAA funding for various FAA projects throughout the state, including $127,500 each for Ocean City and Hammonton airports, $58,000 for the Millville airport and $22,525 for the Cape May County airport.

Air traffic controllers are considered essential personnel, and therefore, are not affected by the suspension. Flights are operating as usual.

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