JPL Community Remains Strong in Wake of February Layoffs

On February 7, due to uncertainty in their fiscal allocation for fiscal year (FY) 2024, the JPL Administration “took an exceedingly difficult workforce action” that laid off around 530 employees and 40 contractors, as described in President Thomas Rosenbaum’s letter to the Caltech community. This was done following direction from NASA to anticipate only $300 million of funding for the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission, a sharp decline from the $822 million provided last year. Despite the $949 million requested by the White House in the President’s FY 2024 Budget Request, the House and Senate appropriations committees felt “alarmed” that the mission’s “expected launch schedule continues to slip” despite steady funding, according to a Senate Report from July 2023. In March, they settled on allocating to MSR the predicted amount of $300 million. To better understand how the JPL work environment was affected, the Tech interviewed several JPLers spanning a diverse spectrum of departments and experience.

“We lost some key legends,” reflected Albert “Joey” Jefferson, a flight systems engineer on the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) and Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE)projects. “It’s really hard to see your brothers and sisters go off like that.”

For Jefferson, the allure of JPL was defined not only by its “one-of-a-kind” work opportunities but the unique emotional bond shared between its employees, whom Jefferson described wholeheartedly as “family.”

“Even if we’re not paid as much as other companies, the work and security—or seeming security—of the job was worth it. … I can feel a slight change in atmosphere now that the job security isn’t as certain as people thought before.”

The flurry of support JPLers provided for one another following the layoffs, in what Jefferson termed a “LinkedIn frenzy,” testified to his portrait of the Lab as a place of familial kinship. “We’re still going to try to be a family. Help our former family members, though they’re still family members to us.”

Indeed, these feelings of family were expressed prominently throughout the interviews. “There was always that sense that whether you’re a designer, or an admin, or a janitor, or the PI, we’re always moving together, in the direction of the stars,” said a former member of the JPL Communications team whose job was cut. “Leadership like that is so valuable, it’s extraordinary.”

These workplace qualities of unity and empathy only exacerbated the emotional impact of the layoffs. “If you were to ask people six months ago, in the event of layoffs at JPL, if they would handle it in a way that regarded people’s emotions, people would say for sure,” commented Jamie Luskin, a graduate student in experimental physics who divides her time between the Caltech and JPL campuses. “I think people just felt a little betrayed by the abruptness and lack of regard, the HR-reading-off-a-script-type thing.”

Luskin drew comparisons to how layoffs are often conducted at tech companies (e.g. the prototypical Zoom call with mass firings), remarking how “a lot of people like us decided to work at JPL because we didn’t want to associate with the ruthlessness that’s all over the tech world.” She also spoke of the community response, commending JPLers for their empathy and care. “What impresses me about the community is that there was an instant mobilization to help the people who got laid-off networked with recruiters. … Because of the solidarity and mutual support that comes with the people who work at JPL, they did feel very supported by each other—emotionally and professionally.”

The layoffs are not without consequences on the Caltech campus. In a January update, the Student-Faculty Programs Office explained that the situation at JPL “will impact the number of summer internships,” with a “limited number” of announcement opportunities available for the SURF@JPL program. Its final deadline was consequently extended to April 19. For those who may be discouraged, Tomás Wexler, a JPL student intern and senior in Mechanical Engineering, encourages the same positive sentiment held by the JPLers: “Don’t give up! One of the reasons I applied [to Caltech] was because of JPL … It took a couple years, but things eventually worked out. You always have future opportunities.”