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Seafarer support hubs face Covid-fuelled challenges

Seafarer support hubs face Covid-fuelled challenges
Eric Priante Martin 2 August 2022

North America’s seafarer centres encountered volunteer shortages and a tough market for paid staff as they worked to help mariners tackle pandemic-related problems

They may have helped connect shipboard workers with more than 90,000 Covid-19 vaccines in the US and Canada, aided Ukrainian crew facing war back home and shone a light on seafarer welfare. But North America’s non-profit seafarer centres have faced challenges of their own during what has been a tough two years.

The pandemic and then the tight US labour market led first to difficulties keeping volunteers and later to problems securing paid staff.
Skills shortage

Jason Zuidema, executive director of North American Maritime Ministry Association (NAMMA), told TradeWinds that several seafarer centres have had a need for staff with business skills, and the positions have gone unfilled as jobseekers find many companies looking for people with similar skill sets.

“Seafarers welfare is not a place where you go to get rich,” he said. “It’s been a challenge to attract the kind of quality candidates that we would want — both that can do it but also want to do it longer term.”

NAMMA, a Christian organisation whose members include many of the seafarers’ centres across the US and Canada, is gearing up to hold its annual conference near Baltimore starting on 9 August.

Although their ship visits were impacted by the pandemic and their facilities had to close, the organisations forged on, including their massive vaccination drive and pivoting to carrying out shopping trips for seafarers.

“The real shock happened right at the beginning of the pandemic, when from one week to the next, our seafarer centres were closed in many places and all those who were more elderly, which was a significant number of volunteers, were asked to stay home more long term.”

The centres operated on a skeleton crew as Covid-19 raged on, and the dearth of seafarers visiting the centres extended as shipping companies remained reticent to allow shore leave.

Remaining on standby for ship visits was frustrating for the reduced numbers of volunteers who remained, because it was not always clear when they would be deployed.

Dana Blume, executive director of the Houston International Seafarers’ Center, told TradeWinds that staying adaptable was key to her organisation’s approach to continuing to serve vessel crew members in the pandemic.

Houston was a linchpin of an effort by centres across the US to help seafarers secure vaccination, with the Texas seafarer centre’s staff and volunteers providing 25,000 vaccines — a quarter of the 100,000 seafarer vaccinations across the US and Canada.

Blume said the Houston centre lost some volunteers at the start of the pandemic, but they have largely come back, except for the usual lull during the hot summer months.

But the group has struggled to replace two drivers who left. The centre, she explained, may post a job advertisement, get 10 responses and just one applicant may show up for an interview. Even then, those who are offered a job either do not show up or take a job elsewhere.

The result is that volunteers, staff or even the centre’s chaplain step in as drivers.

“We’ve managed to make it work with the staff and volunteers we have here, but it stretches us pretty thin,” Blume said.

Jennifer Stewart, executive director of Seafarers’ House in Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades, said her organisation is short of paid staff for a different reason. With the halt in the cruise industry during Covid-19, a key source of vessel traffic in the Florida port, the centre took a budget hit.

Remote working

It lost administrative volunteers who did not have the ability to do the work remotely when the pandemic shuttered offices.

Volunteering for ship visits was also challenging, as there was less access to vessels and some volunteers did not want to get out there during Covid-19. And the Seafarers’ House could not bring in a big contingent of volunteers for Shoebox Christmas, when gifts are provided to mariners on ships.

Much of that work fell to the chaplain and his wife. If he could not deliver shoeboxes to vessels for a day, it did not happen that day, she said.

There was an unexpected plus to the pandemic years, however. The maritime professionals on the Seafarers’ House board could not travel, so they have remained on top of a $4.8m project to build a new centre.

“They haven’t missed a beat,” Stewart said.