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Great Lakes Pilots Upend Unfair Crimp on Wages

WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Coast Guard used outdated data to set pay rates for pilots who navigate ships across the Great Lakes, a federal judge ruled Friday.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan's decision comes in complaint three pilot unions brought over the cap that the Coast Guard imposes on rates navigator pilots can charge shipping vessels for their services.

"Because the Coast Guard provided no rational justification for its decision to continue using data the source of which affirmatively stated was inaccurate, the court must find that its actions were arbitrary and capricious," the 16-page opinion states.

The Coast Guard is supposed to calculate final pilotage rates annually to approximate the wages of first mates on shipping vessels and thus determine how much a pilot can charge over a nine-month shipping season.

It does so by multiplying the daily wage in data from the American Maritime Officers Union, and adding the cost of benefits.

The maritime union's complaint took issue with how the Coast Guard calculated the proposed 2014 rate, saying it misinterpreted the data and arrived at an erroneously low number.

Though the union provided corrected data, it said that the Coast Guard continued to use the incorrect data, and adopted the proposed rate that such data supported, claiming the new data had been marked "proprietary" and further included benefits that were not previously part of pilot compensation.

Chutkan noted that the challenge to the agency's information did not necessarily require it to use new data.

The Coast Guard was required, however, to "provide a full analytical defense" and show consciousness of that data's limits, the court found.

In attempting to justify its failure to do that here, the Coast Guard noted that the maritime union had affirmed the data in the past.

Chutkan said the union's correction of the data undercuts this claim, however, and she said the Coast Guard's rejection based on additional benefits was a departure from the way it considered benefits in the past.

"When an agency departs from its prior policies or practices, it must acknowledge and explain the departure," Chutkan wrote. "The Coast Guard gave no explanation for departing from its position of recognizing these extra days to not recognizing them. There is instead an assertion that no departure occurred."

Chutkan said the "typical remedy" is to vacate the offending rule, but that doing so in this case would return wages to their lower levels of 2013.

The unions say that pilots should be permitted to recover the difference in wages from shipping companies, but Chutkan found no exact court precedent for that.

A relief proposal is due by the unions on April 17 and the Coast Guard on May 8.

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