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Pilots Seek 28 Percent Raise Due to Mississippi River Challenges

Pilots seek significant wage increases for parity and because of Mississippi River challenges
Mississippi river pilots on the bridge - courtesy of Crescent River Pilots Association

By The Maritime Executive 07-31-2020 08:41:47

The union that represents the pilots that guide ships from the Gulf of Mexico along the Lower Mississippi River to New Orleans has filed a formal request for a 28 percent pay increase along with improvements in their working conditions. The more than 100-year-old Crescent River Port Pilots Association represents the 122 pilots who guide everything from cargo ships and tankers to cruise ships on the more than 100 miles upriver to New Orleans.

According to documents obtained by The Advocate newspaper in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the pilot’s union is petitioning the Louisiana Pilotage Fee Commission, which oversees pilotage on the rivers and set fees, for the wage increase along with an annual cost of living adjustment. The union also seeks to increase its membership to 150 pilots to manage increased traffic, stress, and fatigue. The newspaper reports that the average pilot’s annual wage is more than $525,000 and the union wants the average to increase to nearly $700,000 annually.  

According to the Advocate newspaper report, the Lower Mississippi pilots earn as much as a quarter less than the pilots responsible for navigating the river between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The union says that its members are entitled to wage parity with their colleagues, as they have the same experience and skills and work on an extremely challenging section of the river vital to commerce.

Crescent Pilots on their website discuss the challenges that their members face, citing the fact that they guide vessels of varying shapes and sizes, each with different handling characteristics. They say that piloting ships on the Mississippi River is always challenging, and additional factors like fog, thunderstorms, swift currents, and the volume of traffic add to the challenges of supervising a safe passage on the river. The river, the pilots say, is rated as one of the most difficult and treacherous routes in North America, requiring knowledge of the local currents, tides, shoals, aids-to-navigation, landmarks, and weather conditions. On average, Crescent Pilots say the members log over 16,000 turns and transport nearly 560 million tons of cargo on the Mississippi River each year.

The primary groups the pilots serve are the broad range of commercial vessels transporting oil, gas, and chemical cargoes as well as other commercial freight. Normally, the river is also busy with a broad range of cruise ships and passenger vessels, which however are currently not operating due to the pandemic.

According to the newspaper’s report, the commercial shippers as well as the cruise industry are all opposing the raise citing the current economic challenges. The Advocate quotes the head of the Chemical Association as reporting more than an eight percent decline in river traffic in 2019 and early indications of a further seven percent decline this year. The union counters citing its own numbers showing substantial increases over the past seven years. The state’s lieutenant governor however told the newspaper that he supports the pay increase as both reasonable and necessary.

The commission overseeing the pilot’s activities will begin a process of review and taking testimony before an opinion is given to the commissions on the validity of the pilot’s request.  A final decision could take more than a year.