By Paul Doell
What's the word of the year? "Pandemic," of course. Now in its ninth month, the COVID-19 crisis jabs persistently at health and human nature, surging in every state, roiling emotion and leaving loss, uncertainty and fatigue everywhere in its wild wake.
When the national health emergency was declared in response to the worldwide coronavirus outbreak in mid-March, one of the immediate consequences was the daily testing of the professionalism and patience of AMO members everywhere - relentless hardships like long isolation and short tempers.
Many AMO members and other U.S. merchant mariners are stranded at sea or in port for much longer than anticipated because travel restrictions and other COVID-19 mitigation measures make it difficult if not impossible for relief officers and crewmembers to reach their assigned vessels. Routine rotations and pier-head jumps are no longer because health and safety protocols require virus testing and quarantine lasting 14-21 days before boarding for work and upon heading home after completing shipboard assignments.
AMO members are in many cases restricted to ship, unable to schedule required training, plan a vacation or participate in important family events - often as vendors and contractors come and go at will, free of protocols. Many AMO members may now be providing financial support to loved ones displaced from their jobs or forced to shutter small businesses in this COVID economy.
AMO members endure all of these extraordinary "new normal" circumstances all day every day.
Despite the stress, isolation, exhaustion and often-unavoidable anger triggered by conditions beyond their control, AMO members remain faithful to tradition, principle and responsibility. To an individual, these engine and deck officers continue to do their jobs extremely well, and we at AMO Headquarters are grateful to them.
Today's unprecedented, unpredictable circumstances also forced difficult but necessary and practical adjustment of union policy, all with the specific purposes of preventing or at least limiting infection among the seagoing AMO membership and complying with state, county and municipal restrictions.
As we have reported routinely along the way, we have had to cancel nine consecutive monthly membership meetings at headquarters to contain the risk to anyone traveling to and from South Florida, a chronic coronavirus hotspot in one of only three states as of December 7 to record more than one million cases since April.
On the economic front, the pandemic's immediate catastrophic consequences included the largest losses ever on Wall Street. Like all institutional investors, AMO - and the defined benefit AMO Pension Plan - suffered steep dives, but each unit recovered quickly, and each was doing well as the holiday season began.
One concern at this point is the impact of a prolonged plague on cargo volumes in the deep-sea, Great Lakes and inland waters sectors. This year, Midwest steel mills closed or reduced their output because of COVID-19 - a development that resulted in weak demand for iron ore - the principal cargo hauled under AMO contract by Great Lakes bulk carriers - and the layup of several vessels.
Our union experienced little if any such disruption in deep-sea or inland trades, but every current indication is that slack demand for oil and petroleum products could force tankers and barges from service indefinitely, with layups beginning by the New Year.
As we all know, laid-up vessels mean lost jobs and proportionately fewer employer contributions into AMO Plans, the benefit funds that serve all AMO members and their families.
With COVID-19 commanding the AMO conversation, it is easy to overlook the good news for our union in 2020, including the addition of one ship - the Maersk Misaki - to the AMO deep-sea fleet roster.
In Washington, many Republicans and Democrats who work together to promote the U.S. merchant fleet and American merchant mariners were returned to office in the House of Representatives and in the Senate in the November 3 election.
In the months leading to the nationwide balloting, this broad bipartisan political support base sustained and improved the Maritime Security Program, revived the Export-Import Bank as a valued source of heavy lift and project cargo for U.S.-flagged ships, sought to tighten U.S.-flag cargo preference requirements, supported food aid export programs and pursued additional opportunity for U.S.-flag vessel operating companies and the civilian shipboard officers and crews these companies employ - with AMO reaping much of the benefit.
Perhaps the most significant political point this year was the June 5 centennial of the Jones Act, an increasingly important law that has endured on conspicuous merit. Two Senate bills and four House bills targeting the venerable Jones Act in various ways languished for two years with no support, and each will lapse as a new Congress takes office January 1.
Internally, AMO this year was able to forego a 2021 membership dues increase and a hike in initiation fees charged to applicants for AMO membership - 2021 will be the seventh consecutive year in which the line was held on what remain the lowest dues rates among the three merchant marine officers' unions. This was possible because of a combination of sound asset management and increased payment of dues by AMO members on time - "good standing," as defined in the AMO Constitution.
This year, we made significant progress on retirement security issues, including a 10-percent increase in monthly benefits calculated 11 years earlier for active AMO members vested in the AMO Pension Plan, which was suspended for benefit purposes under federal law in December 2009. This increase was the first real relief from pension limbo for AMO members still at work.
Two additional retirement security initiatives - our union's "first responder" proposal to the Internal Revenue Service and an AMO Defined Contribution Plan rule rewrite - remain pending. Details will be reported to the seagoing AMO membership as circumstances permit.
At this writing, the cautious consensus among public health officials was that the COVID-19 pandemic could ease considerably in the first and second quarters of 2021 as approved vaccines and therapies are applied nationwide. Some analysts agree that the economy could recover completely by the end of 2021.
Meanwhile, AMO officials, representatives and support personnel at headquarters and in Washington and Toledo will monitor all developments carefully and get vital, accurate information out to the deep-sea, Great Lakes and inland waters fleets and to AMO members at home as quickly as possible.
On behalf of everyone in this administration, I wish every AMO family a happy, healthy holiday season and a far, far better New Year. As always, I welcome your comments, questions and perspectives.