F-16 fighters fly in formation before landing.

The U.S. Air Force has decided to return to having uniformed airmen conducting maintenance on F-16 aircraft at Eielson Air Force Base, leaving roughly 70 civilian employees without jobs and another 90 facing impending unemployment.

The contractor, international engineering firm AECOM, is now under fire from former employees, some of whom allege they were led to believe that the contract under which they were working would be extended until at least September of this year. While the Air Force said there were never any talks to extend the contract, AECOM declined to comment on the allegations.

Since 2018, international engineering firm AECOM has been contracted by the U.S. Air Force to conduct F-16 aircraft maintenance at Eielson Air Force Base. According to a public affairs spokesperson from Eielson, AECOM contractors conducted “aircraft maintenance, flight line phase inspection, crash recovery services and support.”

With that contract coming to an end in March, the Air Force has opted to return to having uniformed airmen conduct the work.

A statement provided by the Air Force explains that, in fiscal year 2017, the military branch decided to “augment military personnel with contractors at Eielson to perform aircraft maintenance.” This was considered a temporary measure to address a shortage of skilled uniformed maintainers, which was the result of budgetary constraints.

“The challenge of recruiting and retaining aircraft maintainers was particularly acute among fighter aircraft maintenance community amidst high operational tempo to support current legacy weapon systems while bringing the F-35A online,” the statement reads. “Subsequently, the Air Force has implemented a number of initiatives to grow, develop and retain these airmen with the right mix of skill levels and experience.”

These initiatives were a success, which means the Air Force no longer needs its contractor, AECOM, to maintain aircraft at Eielson.

On Nov. 29, 70 AECOM employees were informed by their supervisors that they would lose their jobs on Jan. 7. The other 90 will lose their jobs in March. However, many former employees are now claiming that, over the past year, they were informed the contract would be extended. Some hired as recently as the fall 2019 claim that they only took the job because they were assured at least a year of work.

Since 2018, employees working for AECOM at Eielson — with the exception of supervisors and managers — have been unionized as a bargaining unit under the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace workers. Many former employees aired their grievances to Bonny Moeller, a business representative for the union, who is in negotiation with AECOM regarding grievances related to the contract loss and more.

“At first glance it does seem like a typical contract loss situation,” Moeller said. “But the rumors that you’ve heard I guess we can confirm. The program manager for that site had told multiple people including the recruiters that the contract had been extended. We got a statement from the hiring manager at AECOM Eielson that he was told by the contract manager that the contract had been extended through September 2020.”

Moeller was also told by employees that an AECOM manager visited the site in July and made an announcement to employees that the contract had been extended. Several employees, some of whom were hired and relocated to Fairbanks as recently as October, were informed that their jobs would still be around until at least September.

“I did multiple site visits, from the time when the layoffs were announced,” Moeller said. “It was definitely a common story from people working there. The average tenure from that site was one year. Many of them have relocated to Alaska for these positions.”

A spokesperson for the Air Force said that there was never any discussion with AECOM about extending the contract.

When asked to comment for this story, AECOM declined to respond to the allegations made by former employers. The firm provided the following statement:

“The Air Force is insourcing the aircraft maintenance work previously performed by contractors at several locations. While it is regrettable that our employees will no longer be able perform this vital work as they have since the contract’s inception, in the case of insourcing this is a government decision that AECOM doesn’t control. We are working with the government and our employees to help support a smooth transition.”

Moeller said that the union’s negotiations with AECOM are slated to occur in early March. Through these negotiations, the union intends to ensure employees have a say in the fallout of the layoffs and that AECOM responds to various additional complaints from former employees. While she couldn’t disclose the details of all of the complaints, she noted that some of them involve contract violations and matters unrelated to the contract loss.

“We have not begun negotiations yet,” Moeller said. “The company has been dragging their feet. They do have an obligation to bargain with the company over the effects of these layoffs.”

The contract loss will leave roughly 780 civilian employees working on base. This number includes Government Service, Non-Appropriated Fund, and Contract employees with Department of Defense identification cards.

Contact staff writer Alistair Gardiner at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.