About 2,000 Boeing engineers and technical staff have been in limbo since before Christmas, when management abruptly announced that about half of them will likely lose their jobs as work is moved to Alabama, South Carolina and Missouri.

They were given no further specifics.

Officials with Boeing’s white-collar union, unable to offer any clarity, have advised affected members to leave and find other jobs.

On Thursday, in an internal company webcast, Boeing gave a limited status update and announced that the company will offer voluntary buyouts with up to 26 weeks of pay for a subset of the employees who “will be identified during the next several months.”

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Boeing spokesman Tom Koehler said employees eligible for the buyouts will receive more information in May.

With employees left not knowing who will be eligible, the update will do little to dispel the uncertainty.

“It’s a ton of stress for our family,” said the wife of one lead engineer, a 20-year Boeing veteran, who has
no clear information on his future.

“Should I get the house ready for sale? Should I be looking at houses in St. Louis?” his wife asked. “It’s unbelievable. They can’t treat people like this.”

“My husband loves his work and I am not bashing Boeing,” she added. “Honestly, the company is amazing. However, what is happening now is, in my opinion, unconscionable.”

The people left hanging work in Boeing Research & Technology (BR&T), the company’s advanced central research and development unit. Providing support to the company’s commercial, military and space units, they run labs that test loads on airplane parts or the performance of electronic systems. They also research breakthrough technologies for the creation of new products.

In an early December webcast, management told BR&T employees about 1,000 jobs in the Puget Sound region will be lost over a couple of years to new technology research centers in Huntsville, Ala., St. Louis, and North Charleston, S.C.

For local staff whose jobs are moved, most are not expected to be offered positions at the new centers, where jobs are being reposted at lower-paid grade levels.

“We have not been told we can apply for the jobs in Alabama. We haven’t been told we can’t. We have been told that there won’t be any relocation funds for us,” said one technical staffer whose work is earmarked for Huntsville.

He asked for anonymity to protect his job, as did other employees.

“Waiting for this to happen is like slowly waiting for death,” he said. “Work efficiency is way down. And who can blame anyone?”

Stark message

In lunchtime meetings with BR&T staff, Ray Goforth, executive director of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), has delivered a stark message to anyone who was told their jobs may be moving.

“I’ve been saying, ‘Get out. Find another job,’ ” said Goforth. “You need to listen to what your employer is telling you. Your employer is abandoning you.”

“I have to explain to them, this doesn’t make economic sense, but they are doing it anyway,” he added.

Some union members have expressed shock at this attitude, asking if there is nothing more the union can do.

Goforth said it’s frustrating, but that employee anger is directed at the company.

“We’re not seeing membership drop,” he said.

A slide from the December webcast to BR&T employees outlines the plan for relocations, which Boeing touts as “geographic diversification.”

Two pie charts compare the regional allocation of BR&T jobs now and in the future. Now 56 percent of the jobs are in Washington state. The future percentage is projected to be 30 percent.

In contrast, the percentage of jobs in North Charleston is projected to jump from 3 percent to 25 percent in future. The percentage in St. Louis is expected to double from about 12
to 25 percent.

Each research center will have specialties. Washington retains just one: integration of manufacturing technology. In other words, research closely tied to the final assembly lines in the local jet plants.

Research less aligned with current jet programs, such as future electronics, simulation and materials technology, is earmarked for elsewhere.

“This means that essentially all of the aerospace research that was previously conducted in Washington state will be relocated to other areas of the U.S.,” said one research engineer.

Boeing’s Koehler said the restructuring will “better meet the long-term technology needs of Boeing’s business unit and government customers.”

However, many inside BR&T cannot see the logic.

For example, the technical staffer whose unit is earmarked to move to Alabama said his work mainly supports the engineers on the 737, 777 and 787 programs.

“It is much more efficient and cost-effective when I can talk to the engineer face to face when there is a crisis with their work. Sometimes this now happens several times a day,” he said.

He said that a year ago some from his group were heavily involved in fixing the 787 battery issue, working closely with teams in Everett.

“A lot of the work had to be completed in a time frame that would have been difficult to do from Alabama,” the technical staffer said.

Cutting costs?

Many local employees are convinced Boeing is cutting costs by seeking to nudge out older, more expensive employees in favor of hiring younger engineers who’ll be paid less and have a 401(k) retirement plan instead of a traditional pension.

SPEEA’s Goforth said that’s what happened after Boeing announced last May that engineering support for out-of-production airplanes would move from the state to Long Beach, Calif.

“They laid off a bunch of engineers in their 50s and hired a bunch of engineers in their 20s,” Goforth said.

Many employees also see an anti-union motivation.

The new research centers set to grow are all in “right-to-work” states, less friendly to unions.

During protracted and bitter contract negotiations with SPEEA in 2012, Boeing’s head of engineering, Mike Delaney, warned publicly that if the union forced an expensive contract, the company would move engineering work out of the Puget Sound region.

Since the SPEEA contract was finalized a year ago, Boeing has announced a lengthy series of transfers of engineering work.

IT work, pilot training, support for out-of-production airplanes, modifications and conversions of passenger jets to freighters, and work on advanced airplane concepts are all migrating to other sites across the U.S.

In May, Boeing said it will do engineering design work in South Carolina on the nacelles that encase the engines of the upcoming 737 MAX.

In October, Boeing announced that much of the detailed design work on the forthcoming 777X will be done outside Washington state.

BR&T employees who watched the webcast update Thursday quoted management as saying the voluntary layoff buyouts will offer up to 26 weeks of pay to nonunion staff, and that SPEEA employees will get an offer “per their contract,” which some interpreted as meaning the minimum required, only 13 weeks of pay.

Koehler declined to provide any details on the buyout package. Thursday afternoon, the union also did not know.

BR&T members remain in limbo.

Dominic Gates: (206) 464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com