My Turn: Don't blame crew for ferry struggles

Posted: Friday, January 14, 2005

It appears that there is an attitude concerning the crew of the Alaska Marine Highway System. The administration paints a picture that the crew members of the ships are overpaid employees who ask too much of their employer. Here is the real picture.

When our employer says that we work half a year, they don't mention that we are 24-seven employees. When we are on the ship, we are on the ship. Each month we spend 336 hours or 14 days, 24 hours a day away from family and friends. This is a lifestyle we chose and enjoy.

AMHS employees are fortunate that they work only two weeks each month. However, while others are sitting in an office and go home at night, those two weeks we are working (including weekends, late nights, and all sorts of weather) equal 84 hours each week. Crew members work a minimum of 12 hours a day and if you are a watch stander you work six hours on and have six hours off. So at the end of two weeks, we have worked a standard 168 hours, not including call outs, drills, and training, which are all necessary.

On land a person who works a traditional 40-hour week, would have 160 hours in a month, eight less then our standard. So in 20 years, we would have worked one year more in hours than those on land, but does that count for our retirement? The bottom line is this: We get paid for hours we work. We don't work half the year and get paid for the entire year. We work our two weeks, which turns out to be a month worth of hours, and that is what we get paid for. If we are not permanent employees and we are not scheduled to work we lose health care unless we burn our vacation hours.

To become an officer in the Merchant Marine a great deal of training is required. Some people go through academies and others work their way up. A large part of our training has to do with the all the different agencies who regulate the marine industry. We are expected to learn and practice constantly changing policies. Much of our training is done when we are shore-side in time off.

To be a pilot for the marine highway, a mate has to log trips, study, and memorize the different bodies of water, and the aids to navigation. They then have to go into the Coast Guard office and take the pilot exam. This is where from memory we fill in a blank chart, list all the lights and write a narrative for a certain body of water. The chart we fill in has to look accurate to the one we use for navigation. Mates for the marine highway have to take more than 20 pilot exams.

The unlicensed crew also take classes and exams pertaining to their jobs on board. They also deal directly with the passengers, and that in itself takes a lot of skill. It is hard to please everyone all the time, and with reduction of decent scheduling and the negative attitude our employer, the state, presents concerning the AMHS, their job becomes more difficult.

Now our employer is blaming the organized labor of the three unions for the high costs of the Fairweather. This is a tactic they are using to reduce the size of crew. The other 235 foot ships in the fleet have 24 crew members, Fairweather has 10. If they cut crew, passenger services and safety are going to be affected. Southeast Alaska waters in winter are rough, and there is a reason the system has used steel ships for 40 years.

This whole issue is over cutting crew and building roads, and our employer is trying to convince residents we are a waste of money and want too much. AMHS has been around 40-plus years and we are unique to the state. We enjoy working for the citizens of Alaska (our true employer), however; when we are constantly made to look bad by the state it makes our jobs a little less enjoyable.

• Rob Glenn is a mate for the Alaska Marine Highway System and lives in Ketchikan.

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