In two decades at NASA Langley Research Center, Denise Stefula has worn many hats — management analyst, project coordinator, science writer.
Stefula is not a civil servant working directly for the space agency, but a contract worker — one of a small army employed by private companies that bid on multi-year NASA contracts to supply the professional, administrative and media staff the Hampton center needs to function.
Typically, it’s the contract workers who stay and the contracting companies that come and go. About half of the 3,500 people working at Langley are under a contract of some kind.
Over the years, Stefula has sailed through three or four changeovers from one contracting company to the next with nary a hitch.
It’s work she believes in.
“I love working for NASA,” Stefula said recently. “I love supporting the NASA missions.”
She always felt that that love was requited.
In March, NASA Langley announced it had chosen its newest contractor, Alutiiq-Fusion Joint Venture, to provide about 200 employees under Langley’s administrative, media and professional services (LAMPS II) contract.
Soon after, Stefula was stunned to discover she would have to take a 37 percent pay cut to keep her job.
She wasn’t alone.
Several contract workers at the center interviewed by the Daily Press say their salary reductions range from 8 percent to 37 percent, and that countless colleagues have taken similar cuts, or greater. They cite unsubstantiated accounts of a few senior staffers who had their pay slashed by 70 percent.
They also say benefits are diminished and insurance premiums are steeper.
Experienced contract employees say this is not the norm.
“I’ve gone through one contract change before, and it was pretty seamless,” said Amy McCluskey, a communications manager. “Very little paperwork involved, and your job stays the same.”
This time, McCluskey said, word began to spread early on that the contract bid “came in really low.”
“And so the talk around the center was, ‘Well, if they’re coming in that low, there’s no way they can afford to pay everybody the same. People are going to get cut. That’s definitely what was different this time as compared to previous times — there were more people talking about it, more anxiety, more worry about what might happen.”
When her offer letter finally arrived, McCluskey found her salary was reduced by 8 percent.
“That takes me back four or five years in pay, essentially,” she said. “But what was even worse was to talk to other people who got even more significant cuts.”
Dale Lavine, a program coordinator who’s been at Langley for 2 ½ years, was offered a 10 percent cut.
”Which isn’t as bad as a lot of the administrative assistants out here,” Lavine said. “Some of my coworkers down the hall, they have taken monstrous hits.”
‘Not the same contracts’
Langley’s new contractor is a partnership between Alutiiq LLC, a Native American-owned business based in Anchorage, Alaska, and Media Fusion of Huntsville, Alabama.
The companies divvied up employees, with Alutiiq largely handling the administrative and professional staffing and Media Fusion the media services, video production and public affairs.
Alutiiq-Fusion also took on a subcontractor, Banner Staffing in D.C., to handle about a dozen workers for Langley’s Office of Human Capital Management.
Langley’s previous contractor, GenTech Partners Joint Venture, won its five-year LAMPS I contract in 2012 with a bid of $94 million.
This time, Alutiiq-Fusion bid 3.6 percent under that, or $90.5 million. The contract includes a one-year base period, beginning June 1, plus four one-year options.
Company officials declined to answer questions for this article, but did email a statement from Malia Villegas, vice president of corporate affairs for Afognak Native Corporation. Alutiiq is a subsidiary of Afognak.
Alutiiq-Fusion “worked to secure the very best workforce possible” to meet the June 1 deadline, Villegas wrote, and the company abides by the average wage and fringe benefit rates “for each classification of laborers prevailing in a given area.”
“We are not privy to and therefore cannot comment on how these rates compare to what staff received under a previous contract,” Villegas wrote. “Our hope was to recruit as much of the local talent as possible while meeting the requirements of the client and demands of the contract.”
In a recent phone interview from his office in D.C., the president of Banner Staffing, Ramon Diaz, said he wasn’t authorized to speak about the Langley contract, but would speak about government contracts in general.
Banner was founded in 2000 and works mostly with city and federal governments. Generally speaking, Diaz said, when a proposal is submitted for a contract, it spells out what the company will pay each worker, plus the cost of benefits, such as vacation and sick time, payroll and other taxes, and finally the company’s markup, which determines its profit.
In his experience, he said, government agencies increasingly are tightening their belts.
“I think, overall, if you go all over the government, every department is cutting their cost,” Diaz said. “So they are not the same contracts like they used to (be).”
Still, while Alutiiq, Media Fusion and Banner are all working under the same contract, they don’t all handle benefits in the same way.
The administrative assistant, for instance, is working under Alutiiq and said her insurance premiums have gone up $250 a month. She must go the first 30 days of her contract, or the entire month of June, without coverage. There’s no longer a 401(k) match and vacation days no longer accrue monthly, but are allotted after one year of service.
Stefula and McCluskey, meanwhile, are working under Media Fusion, which still offers vacation days that accrue monthly and a 401(k) company match after one year — although with pay cuts the company matches are also reduced. Insurance premiums have increased — by $140 a month, according to McCluskey — but there was no lapse in coverage. Stefula, who has an adult son with autism at home, said her premium also rose.
And Lavine, who works under Banner, said the company initially told him he would get standard benefits and a 401(k) match. Later, he learned his insurance premiums are higher for inferior coverage, and there is no 401(k) match.
The selection process
NASA Langley also declined an interview for this story, but did issue an emailed statement that said NASA and other federal agencies “routinely acquire these types of support services through competitive contracts, and it is up to the companies to determine how to meet the requirements.”
“NASA Langley,” the statement continued, “does not have any insight into individual salaries paid by the current contractor or ongoing salary negotiations between the incumbent employees and Alutiiq-Fusion.”
The federal contracting process “often creates uncertainty for contractor employees offered the opportunity to continue employment with a new company performing under a new contract,” it reads. “However, NASA Langley cannot engage with contractor management to negotiate salaries the contractor pays to its employees.”
NASA Langley’s “Source Selection Statement” describes the process it used to select Alutiiq-Fusion from a host of bidders.
In January 2017, Cathy Mangum, the center’s associate director, appointed a Source Evaluation Board to whittle 14 proposals down to four finalists over the course of a year.
That board gave Alutiiq-Fusion a “very high level of confidence” rating for its recent performance and for how similar its previous work was in size, content and complexity to Langley’s needs. That rating is the highest the board awarded.
While Alutiiq-Fusion wasn’t the lowest bidder among the final four, the only finalist to bid lower rated only a “moderate level of confidence” for past performance.
Mangum chose Alutiiq-Fusion based primarily on its demonstrated past performance and its pricing, according to the selection statement.
Its past performance includes contract staffing at other NASA centers — Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.
Banner Staffing has also worked with Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Overall, Langley’s board rated the Alutiiq-Fusion team “exemplary.”
Offer letters to contract employees carry a routine reminder that employment is “at will,” meaning the employee can terminate the contract at any time, without notice.
Likewise, the letters state, the company can “terminate your employment at any time, for any reason or no reason, without notice.”
For those unhappy with the terms of their contracts, but who don’t want to lose their jobs, there are few options.
McCluskey said she asked to negotiate her pay “and I was told no, they couldn’t do that, because they’re under a fixed-price budget and that they don’t have any room to negotiate salaries for anybody.”
Contract employees interviewed all said some colleagues gave notice outright after getting their offer letters while others have said they’re looking for other jobs.
“I feel like the attrition rate is going to increase over this next year,” said Stefula. “People are not going to just not go to work — they have families to support. But as time comes up over this next year or so, some of the most talented people that NASA needs to be able to support them are very likely going to move on to other jobs. And some people absolutely put their resignation in immediately.”
“The morale is probably at an all-time low,” said Lavine, “and it’s just going to keep getting lower. We’re all wondering how many people are going to leave. I feel like there’s going to be a mass exodus of administrative assistants and office managers, which is going to make, I guess, the actual organizations — the directorates — unhappy.”
Since signing his contract, Lavine accepted a job offer with a major local company that he said offers better pay and benefits and fits his long-term career goals.
McCluskey said she’s actively looking for another position.
‘We want to support them’
Stefula said a Media Fusion official told her the company was setting positions under NASA guidelines and, after a market analysis, setting salaries based on only three to five years of experience.
“It feels a little bit demeaning to think that what you’re doing and have been doing for a couple of decades has little meaning,” said Stefula. “Obviously, if you’ve got two decades of experience in, you should be commanding a salary that’s appropriate for two decades of work, not a three- to five-year level of experience range.
“It also is frustrating because there’s another element here that is a little bit unseen and I think rides under the wire a little bit, and that has to do with age discrimination. …,” Stefula said. “I would like to be planning to retire in a few years, and this kind of impacts my capability to retire by a certain age and my ability to even plan for my retirement.”
“A lot of these people are older, a lot of them are older women looking towards retirement,” said McCluskey, 39. “They’ve been on center for a long time. And it almost seems they (the companies) didn’t even look at tenure or history or ability of employees, and instead just kind of looked at what was on paper.”
“By the same token,” said Stefula, 57, “these are the same folks, like me, who enjoy working for NASA, and we feel strongly about supporting this mission. You’re working with the brightest minds in the world — world-renowned climate scientists and aeronautics professionals — and we believe in what they’re doing and we want to support them.”
NASA Langley is routinely touted as a major employer and economic driver by Virginia leaders, who frequently tour the campus. Sen. Tim Kaine was at Langley in April.
Contacted for this story, Kaine’s office said “contract workers play a critical role” in the center’s efforts.
“He (Kaine) is concerned by reports that certain contract staffers are facing large pay cuts,” a spokeswoman said in an emailed statement, “and hopes that NASA and the contractor work together to deliver competitive compensation packages commensurate with experience.”
Kaine’s office also has been in touch with NASA Langley about those concerns.
In a separate emailed statement, Sen. Mark Warner called the reports of pay cuts “troubling.”
“Drastic cuts of this nature aren’t good for the workforce of highly qualified folks that NASA Langley depends on,” Warner said.
Despite the disagreements over pay and benefits, the contract workers say company representatives they’ve met with during the transition have been pleasant.
“I don’t have any ill will towards them,” said McCluskey. “I think the whole situation is just unfortunate.
“I don’t know if there’s a change in government agencies having to take these lower-bid contracts. I don’t know what it is. But it’s not the way they should be going, because there are so many people that work out there that love working there, so many contractors.
“And NASA Langley and its previous contract companies have done a really good job of making people feel valued and appreciated,” McCluskey said. “So this is really a slap in the face compared to how we’ve all been treated in the past.”
Contact Dietrich at 757-247-7892 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter at DP_Dietrich
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