How one AMO member brought key issue interest to a significant new level

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To Chief Engineer Chad Morin, a longtime member of American Maritime Officers, it was not enough to simply leave a voice message or an email with four-term U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) in support of a maritime proposal tied directly to national security. Morin engaged the Senator and her staff in a productive, continuing dialog on an issue of real importance to AMO members and to U.S. defense strategists.

The topic of conversation and correspondence is AMO's "first responder" proposal to encourage qualified senior American merchant mariners to remain in their jobs at sea and continue to be available for defense shipping services during mobilization for an overseas conflict. Chad took it straight to Sen. Collins, who serves on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and its Primary Health and Retirement Subcommittee.

At one recent point, Chad and I spoke via Zoom with the Senator about the AMO proposal, under which active civilian American merchant mariners with 20 years or more of sea service would be allowed to draw earned monthly benefits from traditional defined benefit pension plans for direct rollover to qualified defined contribution plans - including individual AMO retirement accounts and personal IRAs - where this money would grow through self-directed investment.

Mariners gaining under this proposal would stay in their jobs at least long enough to reach age 65, and they would be on call to crew the government-owned Ready Reserve Force fleet and Military Sealift Command's surge fleet to deliver defense cargoes to U.S. military personnel overseas when necessary.

During our talk with Sen. Collins, I emphasized the national security threat arising from the early departure from the industry of mariners seeking employment ashore, where the prospect of secure, comfortable retirement appeared brighter to many of these seagoing professionals.

This trend aggravates a real and potentially crippling shortage of skilled, loyal and dependable U.S. merchant mariners - the "first responders" in any overseas contingency. The Defense Department's Transportation Command and Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate Armed Services Committee make this point often.

But Chad introduced a new, enlightening perspective. He warned that many new graduates of Maine Maritime Academy - Chad's alma mater - are seeking jobs shoreside straight out of school, or sailing a few years and leaving for shoreside jobs that provide better retirement security then the plans that are currently offered in the American maritime industry. He stressed that retention of these younger mariners is imperative to maintaining a viable and qualified pool of U.S. merchant mariners for national emergencies.

Chad was thoughtful and articulate, and he made the urgency clear - this issue matters at both the licensed entry and career-long levels, and the U.S. may soon be unable to get defense cargoes where and when they have to be at the outbreak of war.

Our union's proposal would require an administrative exemption from Internal Revenue Service rules comparable to breaks provided for "first responders" - firefighters, law enforcement officers, emergency medical technicians and health care workers - in some public sector retirement plans. The alternative route would be legislation, which could take an undue amount of time.

Late last year, I stirred interest in this proposal in the House Ways and Means and Education and Labor Committees, but the COVID-19 crisis essentially halted all legislative work - closing Congressional offices, forcing key staffers to work remotely and forcing almost exclusive focus on relief for the newly unemployed and for endangered small businesses since the national health emergency was declared in mid-March 2020.

But Chad Morin opened the door on the Senate side. He made it a constituent interest, and his message registered with Sen. Collins - who has a long and distinguished record in support of the U.S. merchant fleet, American merchant mariners and Maine Maritime Academy.

"I believe it is my duty as a union member to pitch in and help fight the battle," Morin said, and I, for one, am grateful for his initiative.

Now, Chad and I are following Sen. Collins's difficult re-election effort. We know the Senator wants to remain helpful to our industry and to its labor force. We know Chad will be among the first to congratulate her when she wins on November 3, and that he will resume the conversation with the appropriate Collins staffers.

Paul Doell
October 26, 2020

Editor's note: Sen. Collins was reelected to her Senate seat in the November 3 election.

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