May 28, 2018
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Families affected by UM lab closure express disappointment

Kate Collins | BDN
Kate Collins | BDN
Admininstrative office Dave Lavway (left), and biological science technician Ben LeGasse, right, in a greenhouse at the New England Plant, Soil, and Water Research Laboratory in Orono on Wednesday. Due to a recent cut in federal funding, the USDA laboratory is slated for closure.
By Jamison Cocklin, Special to the BDN

ORONO — Three local families have learned just how difficult it can be to balance the federal budget.

On March 18, employees at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s New England Plant, Soil and Water Laboratory learned in an email from their area director, Dariusz Swietlik, that their jobs soon would be terminated. However, Swietlik assured the 18 employees that some of them would be relocated to other labs across the country.

Leslie Hudson, whose husband, John Halloran, has worked at the Orono lab for 10 years as an agricultural economist, said the news was sudden and “unthinkable.”

“The first 48 hours after we found out were the worst 48 hours in my life,” she said. “We were totally dumbstruck.”

Employees at the Orono lab have been limited to reviewing data and writing papers on their findings. All research has been halted. Employees also still are waiting for official notification of the lab’s closure.

The move came after lawmakers, in an effort to stave off a government shutdown, passed a continuing resolution that would keep the federal government funded through April 8. As a part of the measure, Congress passed $6 billion in spending cuts.

The package of cuts eliminated $115 million earmarked for the Agricultural Research Service, of which $44 million was being used to fund the Orono lab and 46 others like it across the country.

The lab’s closure has set into motion a dispute between Sen. Susan Collins, who argues that the lab was not meant to be targeted by the cuts, and the Agricultural Research Service, which oversees the lab and is complying with the federal government by finding new placements for the employees and closing the facility.

Caught in the middle are the employees and their families.

Hudson, who spoke on behalf of the couple after her husband declined to comment, said she has many concerns for not only herself and her husband but also the other families involved.

For one, she said, her husband is an economist with the Agricultural Research Service, and there are only three or four such positions with the agency throughout the country. Because of this, she said she has little faith in her husband being placed in a new position elsewhere.

Furthermore, she said the couple just finished making substantial renovations to their home and her work as a freelance consultant to nonprofit conservation groups is strongly rooted in Maine.

She said that if her husband were to be relocated, they would be forced to sell their home and she would be forced to give up her job in Maine.

“I have the frame of mind to dig my heels in and not budge, but we can’t make it without money and benefits,” she said.  “I was on overload as it was with the state of the economy, and then this happens.”

Hudson said she knew other families who were so “saddened and disheartened” by the news they already had put their houses on the market.

In the meantime, according to Jessica Rothrock, it has been a “waiting game.” Rothrock’s husband, Michael, who has worked as a research microbiologist at the lab for only a year, said there is little the couple can do.

Rothrock’s husband, like many others, declined to comment after employees were told not to discuss the matter with news media. She said that the couple and their two children had accepted the lab’s closing and were prepared to relocate whenever necessary.

“Luckily we haven’t bought a home here yet,” Rothrock said.  “We are saddened, we love Maine, but my husband loves what he does.  We’re just going to have to go.”

Susan Frantz, whose husband, Jonathan Frantz, works as a research horticulturist at the lab, said it is unclear to employees when and if the lab will close. The Frantz family, who relocated to Orono only six months ago from Toledo, Ohio, will move if her husband’s job is relocated, according to Susan.

She said the news came as a “huge shock,” and the family is disappointed with having to prepare for a move all over again. The couple has a son in fifth grade who also will be affected.

When asked about placement of employees, Sandy Miller Hays, a spokeswoman for the agency, noted the size of the agency. She said it has more than 100 labs across the country and around 2,200 employees. As a result, she said relocating displaced workers would not pose a problem.

Officials with the Agricultural Research Service also said employees would be reimbursed for moving expenses if they choose to relocate.

The 18 employees affected by the funding cuts in Orono will join 71 others from across the country who also are expected to lose their jobs as a result of Agricultural Research Service cuts.

On Wednesday, the job listings portion of the federal government’s website showed 64 job openings for the Agricultural Research Service.

Collins has sent a letter on the issue o Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack and members of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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