Damage Controlman 2nd Class Tony Arguello works aboard the cruiser San Jacinto in August. DC2s are among sailors eligible for sea duty incentive pay — a good sign of a billet that could be filled under the Early Return to Sea plan. (MC3 Preston Paglinawan/Navy)
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“Sailors belong on ships, and ships belong at sea” — it’s an oft-heard adage chiefs use to convince sailors why they should return to the fleet.
That’s especially true today, as officials struggle to patch thousands of open gaps in the fleet with permanent crew. As of March, there are 7,057 open billets at sea, as well as an estimated 14,000 gaps in what the Navy calls “fit” — having sailors with the right Navy enlisted classifications in billets.
To boost these numbers, officials have in recent months rolled out many carrots, like higher sea pay, to lure sailors back to sea.
Now come the sticks.
The Navy’s personnel boss approved new rules March 13 that allow detailers to yank sailors off shore duty sooner and to extend sea duty for others to keep the most critical jobs filled.
This new policy, known as Early Return to Sea, applies to sailors on their second enlistment or beyond who’ve spent at least 24 months ashore. If the fleet has a pressing need for their skills or qualifications, their shore duty can end abruptly after two years.
Officials say they will take volunteers first and will only cut shore tours for roughly 2 percent of the sailors up for orders each month.
“There are times when fleet vacancies and their associated training requirements do not align well with the availability dates based upon the [projected rotation date] of sailors in their permanent change of station order negotiation window,” wrote Vice Adm. Bill Moran in a fleetwide message announcing the changes, NAVADMIN 058/14.
Personnel leaders say the program was developed at the request of fleet leadership, who say they need more flexibility to fill open billets.
While cutting shore tours short is sure to be an unpopular measure, officials say this will alleviate an even more drastic measure: crossdecking sailors between crews at the last minute. These “rips and fills,”as they are known on the waterfront, could be reduced substantially by giving detailers a freer hand.
How it works
The new rules allow detailers to shorten shore tours for career sailors — those on their second or later enlistments — in paygrades E-4 through E-9, who have completed at least 24 months of their current shore tours.
In addition, the policy will allow detailers to hold a sea duty sailor in their ship or squadron for up to six months after their projected rotation date to keep a critical billet filled until a qualified relief arrives. The rules also permit detailers to transfer a sailor up to six months earlier from sea duty.
“This is our latest effort in response to fleet needs to fill out gaps at sea and specifically our critical NEC gaps,” said Capt. Karen Shriver, who heads enlisted plans and policy for the chief of naval personnel, in a March 13 phone interview.
“We acknowledge that this might come across wrong with sailors, but we want them to understand that we currently estimate 30 critical needs that we’ll have to fill this way each month, from an average monthly roller population of approximately 2,500 people,” Shriver said. “That’s less than a 2 percent chance you’ll get that call.”
Shriver said detailers will look first at those in their normal rotation window, which starts nine months before from their projected rotation dates, as the first choice for critical fills. But if they find no qualified sailors in that time, they can look another nine months out — up to 18 months before a sailor is due to rotate.
Detailers won’t pull the first body they find with the correct skills. They’ll produce lists of qualified sailors each month to be considered for early return to sea.
The lists will be compiled based on factors including time ashore, paygrade, fleet experience, NECs, type of previous sea duty and remaining obligated service.
The goal is to find someone with the correct paygrade and skills the billet is coded for. But if they can’t, detailers can identify those in the same “pay band.”
Most senior of them is the supervisor pay band for E-7 through E-9. Under these rules, senior chiefs and master chiefs may be chosen to fill vacant E-7 and E-8 spots. Similarly, chiefs can be selected to fill vacant senior chief billets.
Next comes the journeymen, E-5s and E-6s, who can be tapped to fill vacant billets at either paygrade. Petty officers third class are considered apprentices; officials could fill those billets with qualified candidates from E-1 to E-4.
Sailors identified as potential ERS candidates will be notified by their detailer and have their records flagged in the Enlisted Assignment Information System. At the same time, placement coordinators will notify that sailor’s command.
Sailors and their commands can fight the request. They have 30 days to submit an “adverse impact statement.” After the 30 days, detailers will read the impact statements and make the call.
The ERS rules are modeled after a similar effort launched two years ago, called Limited Direct Detailing. Officials billed it as a stopgap measure to boost fleet manning, and employed it for only one month to pull 191 sailors off their shore tours.
There is one major difference between this earlier program and the latest push: the LDD program came with cash. Under LDD, a sailor received $1,450 for every month his shore tour was cut, up to a maximum lump-sum payout of $22,500.
A personnel official said a similar stipend wasn’t included in the ERS program due to budget pressure and the smaller number of sailors to be pulled off shore tours each month compared to LDD. At present, only sailors eligible for Sea Duty Incentive Pay will get any monetary compensation for termination of shore duty, and they ultimately must volunteer to get it.
How to take advantage
Sailors selected for ERS will be transferred early from a shore assignment only if they have 12 months or more remaining on their enlistment, Shriver said.
They’ll be asked to extend or re-enlist for the complete sea tour, but even if they choose not to, they’ll go for what time they have remaining on their contracts.
Those with less than a year remaining on their enlistments also would be asked to re-up or extend for the new sea tour if chosen for ERS — but if they refuse, they can’t be transferred.
That could lead to adverse action later, should they reverse course and choose to re-up.
“Their records will most likely be flagged, and it could be taken into consideration when it comes time to re-enlist,” Shriver said.
The Navy also closed another loophole in advance: Don’t think a request to transfer to the Reserve, even if you’re retirement-eligible, will get you out of ERS. The new rules say selectees with more than a year left on their contracts who try to put in for retirement might get turned down.
If faced with involuntary orders, or even if you’re just tired of shore duty and want to head back to sea, there’s still a few ways a sailor can turn an early return to sea into a positive for their career, Shriver said.
One way is the Voluntary Sea Duty Program, which is still a temporary initiative to entice sailors back to sea. Officials say the program will soon go permanent.
Under VSDP, sailors can get a follow-on assignment in the geographic area of their choosing, as well as the flexibility to defer applying for re-enlistment until the end of the tour — an excellent opportunity for sailors in overmanned ratings.
And for those with certain skills, there’s Sea Duty Incentive Pay. Sailors with certain paygrade/rating/NEC combinations can earn an extra $500 to $1,000 for each month they agreed to stay on sea duty beyond their proscribed sea tour, or for each month they cut from their shore tour to return to a critical billet.
Those returning to sea also can expect to see a career sea pay hike of 25 percent that takes effect as soon as June, as well as the possibility of getting a lucrative high deployment pay that Navy officials hope to turn on in the near future.
But the best perk may be a high-year tenure waiver. Officials say they’re giving “favorable consideration” to waiving the Navy’s “up or out” rules in exchange for taking critical sea duty billets.
Current rules cap E-4s at eight years, E-5s at 14, E-6s at 20 and chiefs at 24 years before forced retirement.
Though the service is not considering changing any HYT levels permanently, if you have the skills they need, officials will waive them — giving sailors facing discharge a few more chances to move up.
Since 2012, the service’s use of such waivers has increased significantly. Just a few years ago, officials gave out a couple hundred exceptions each year. Since the push to close at-sea gaps began 17 months ago, officials have granted nearly 1,000 HYT waivers, Shriver said.
“In fiscal ’13, 743 sailors got high-year tenure waivers, the majority of which were in direct support of filling a gapped billet at sea or preventing a billet from becoming gapped,” Shriver said, adding 221 waivers have been approved in the current FY.
Who's at risk
When you’re nearing or past 24 months ashore, it’s time to determine whether you’re at risk for getting pulled off shore duty early. Shriver said one way to assess this is to contact your detailer.
Another way is to check the current list of skills eligible for Sea Duty Incentive Pay. This list of the fleet’s most needed sailors may persuade some to punch out of shore duty early.
The pays are enticing. A damage controlman second class will receive $500 extra a month for returning to sea early. A boatswain’s mate second class will get $600 per month. A fire controlman second class rates an extra $750 per month. The SDIP levels are for E-5 and above and are being offered to more than 30 rates.
For the latest rates, check the Navy Personnel Command website. Click on the Career Info tab and then select Pay and Benefits from the menu on the right of the page. Finally, click on “SDIP” to get the current list of those who qualify.