Five former employees who are suing Lawrence Livermore Laboratory for wrongful termination held a press conference on Thursday to tell their personal stories as their case moves closer to trial set for late next month.
The five former employees talked about the humiliation, shame, and frustration they experienced when they were part of a massive layoff of 440 lab employees, most of whom were over the age of forty, in 2008, shortly after Congress turned over management of the lab to a partnership led by San Francisco-based Bechtel Corp.
When she was laid off, Barraza had worked at the lab for 38 years — since she was eighteen — as a purchasing specialist. She met her husband at the lab and her daughter is a current lab employee. She said it was devastating to be treated so poorly on the day of the layoff.
“We were given one hour to collect our things and go. We were followed everywhere by security guard. I wasn’t allowed to go to the bathroom by myself.” Barraza said. “I felt like a criminal. The only thing missing were the handcuffs.”
The University of California had managed Lawrence Livermore Laboratory since the early 1950s. But in 2006, the Department of Energy (DOE) began taking bids from private contractors to run the 790-acre research facility, which primarily ensures the safety, reliability, and safety of the country’s nuclear weapons.
In 2006, the DOE gave management of the lab to a partnership that still included the University of California, but was led by Bechtel. Within months of the 2008 transition, lab management announced the layoffs, claiming they were due to a budget shortfall of $280 million. The plaintiffs' lead attorney, Gary Gwilliam, claims the lab misrepresented the shortfall and that the lab used its budget deficit as a pretext to get rid of older employees who have higher salaries, larger medical costs, and are closer to collecting their pensions.
However, pretrial rulings have thus far not favored four of the five plaintiffs with regards to their claims of age discrimination. Superior Court Judge Robert Freedman ruled earlier this month that the plaintiffs will not be able to present a blanket case of age discrimination, and now only Barazza’s claim of age discrimination remains intact.
The judge also ruled that whether the lab misrepresented its budget shortfall in order to lay off employees isn;t particularly relevant. That ruling brings into question whether Gwilliam will be able to present the testimony of independent consultant Robert Civiak — a physicist and expert in nuclear weapons budgeting, policy and management — who claims the lab fabricated the budget shortfall of $280 million that supposedly necessitated the layoffs. Rather, Civiak wrote in his declaration, the lab had “sufficient funds to avoid any involuntary layoffs.”
Furthermore, Gwilliam claims the Bechtel-led partnership hasn't been able to fully introduce the efficiency that it claimed it could when it was vying for the lucrative government contract.
The lab’s public affairs office refused to comment on the case, but did issue a short statement about the judge’s ruling. “This decision removes two of the cornerstones of Mr. Gwilliam’s case as it moves through the court system,” the statement reads. “Mr. Gwilliam now must try 130 individual claims with a judge or a jury determining the merits of each of those claims.”
Gwilliam said it is a bit early for the lab to be making such a statement, and that there is a motion before the judge to amend his pretrial ruling based on a significant amount of information the lab has recently turned over to the plaintiffs.
Gwilliam said he remains confident about all of the cases of all 130 plaintiffs because the lab misrepresented its financial situation to get rid of mostly older employees. “Before the lab went private in 2008 there was never any layoffs at the lab,” Gwilliam said. “They have broken the rules, and as a government-funded operation, they should be setting an example, not breaking the rules.”