Looking for a good gig in these tough times?
How about one week on, one week off, for $400,000 a year, and a pension of around $170,000 after 20 years of service?
Not that being a San Francisco Bar Pilot is without risks and responsibilities. As one of an elite group of approximately 60 marine pilots, you’re in charge of navigating giant container vessels, oil tankers and cruise ships in and out of Bay Area and Northern California waters, considered to be among the most treacherous in the nation.
If you’re not on top of your game – well, look what happened to the pilot of the Cosco Busan, which crashed into the fogbound Bay Bridge in 2007, dumping 53,000 gallons of bunker fuel and soiling beaches up and down the coast. He got 10 months in a federal penitentiary.
“They’re highly skilled, professional mariners, and they do really well,” said Mike Jacob, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association in San Francisco, which represents shipowners and marine terminals operating on the West Coast. “And because that’s what we expect, we pay them really well.”
Usually without complaint.
This year, however, the owners balked at the pilots’ demand for pay increases over the next four years, which, according to a consultant’s projection, would bring their annual income to $530,000 a year.
The pilots, who are independent contractors, are paid according to the tonnage their ships carry. While the amount varies from year to year, their annual pay had shot up from approximately $250,000 in 2002 to close to $500,000, on average, in 2006.
But it dipped somewhat in the Great Recession years, during which the pilots did not get a rate increase, they point out. At the same time, they add, fuel and other expenses have gone up (for which they want additional reimbursement), and ever-larger ships steaming into the bay have made their job more hazardous.
Disputing the consultant’s figure, they say it would take until 2015 for their annual pay to once again reach the $400,000 figure attained in 2006 (sfg.ly/le7DcB).
Cooling-off period: Agreeing, the six-member State Board of Pilot Commissioners waved their request through (sfg.ly/mqeZup). This despite a detailed analysis presented on behalf of the Shipping associaton to the board by Jon Haveman, former founding principal of Beacon Economics. He projected the requested rate increases would translate to $530,000 annual pay for the pilots, and disputed many of their claims, some of which, he said, “ring hollow” (sfg.ly/jKovOm and sfg.ly/jXW7mr – Tab 2).
Because of arcane rules going back to the 19th century, the Legislature has to approve any increases and/or changes in working conditions, and a routine bill to that effect was dutifully carried by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco.
But, in the face of rising opposition from ship operators, the bill went down to a 6-5 vote in a state Senate committee this month. A rehearing scheduled for today was canceled by Ma, pending a revised bill to be introduced in 2012.
“She wants to bring everyone to the table, pending a cooling-off period,” said Ma’s chief of staff, Nick Hardeman.
One trusts some thought will be given, during the cooling-off period, to the obvious disconnect between the bar pilots’ economic situation and most other working (and nonworking) Californians, including other highly skilled professionals working in high-risk jobs, like airline pilots, public safety officers and emergency room physicians.
That includes their pensions, for which the shipowners are responsible, and to which the pilots contribute nothing (though they do pay for their own health plan).
“Our biggest long-term concern is not the take-home pay, it’s the pension,” said Jacob, who cited an actuarial estimate of the liabilities at a minimum of $250 million.
This article appeared on page D – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle