Port pilots win wide support for 3-year, 20 percent pay raise

October 01, 1994|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Sun Staff Writer

The Maryland bay pilots, key port businesses and state regulatory officials have asked the state Public Service Commission to increase the pilots' rates by about 20 percent over the next three years.

The joint request, settled upon Thursday, represents the first time all parties have agreed on an increase since the PSC began regulating the pilots 10 years ago.

Depending on the pilots' expenses and the number of ships coming to the port of Baltimore, the increase could incrementally boost the average pilot's pay to about $150,000 a year by 1997.

The first phase would take effect Oct. 15, if the PSC approves the request, as expected.

The pilots association initially sought a 27 percent increase, saying their annual pay was $50,000 below the average for pilots at competing East Coast ports.

A pilots' representative said the compromise reflected the newfound conciliatory spirit at the port, where workers and management are trying hard to shed Baltimore's longstanding reputation for poor labor relations.

"Everybody felt it was in the best interest of the port," said Gary R. Alexander, a former people's counsel for the PSC who represents the 59-member Association of Maryland Pilots.

"There's a very upbeat mood in the port, a very cooperative atmosphere," he said.

"Everybody wants to see the port continue to grow."

After losing a substantial amount of business in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the port has regained cargo during the past two years with several new shipping lines coming to Baltimore and existing ones adding new service here.

The association is composed of highly trained, licensed state pilots who navigate vessels from the Atlantic Ocean -- either through the Chesapeake Bay or the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal -- to the port of Baltimore.

Because it believes there is a public interest in maintaining reliable pilot service, the state regulates them, much the way it does monopolies such as utility companies.

Pilots essentially operate as small independent businesses, paying insurance and other costs out of their revenue.

As a result, it is difficult to calculate exactly what the rate increase will mean to their pay, which currently averages $130,000 a year, according to the pilots association.

"Hopefully, the pilots will be able to keep pace with the cost of living," said Mr. Alexander. The association agreed not to seek any other rate increases until after October 1997.

The increase in rates will be passed along to steamship companies, which had pushed for the three-year phase-in. Under the agreement, rates would rise 7 percent the first year, followed by 6 percent increases each of the following two years.

"No one likes to see an increase in the cost of doing business, but we recognized that the pilots have expenses that have increased," said Maurice C. Byan, president of the Steamship Trade Association, which represents the steamship lines that use the pilots' services.

In their rate increase application, the pilots emphasized their growing health-care costs and the increased costs for training apprentices.

Even though the number of vessels calling the port has actually decreased, Maryland pilots said their workload has increased because of the growing number of retirements.

In 1993, there were 66 active pilots and 2,183 vessels calling at the port.

That compared to 86 pilots and 2,864 vessel calls in 1985. Work is evenly distributed by the association among its members, who work on a rotation basis.

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