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Our industry needs to protect mariners’ paid vacation time

Dec 5, 2014 12:31 PM

By law, every worker in the 28-country European Union, Australia and New Zealand is legally mandated to receive at least a month of paid vacation each year — with six weeks the norm in many of those countries. Japanese and Canadian workers are legally guaranteed weeks of paid vacation every year. But this is not so in the United States. Here, employees have no legal right to any paid vacation at all.
 
Scientific studies have shown that vacation provides tangible health benefits. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh reported that vacation not only reduces stress and improves life satisfaction, but it can even lower blood pressure. The U.S. National Institutes of Health concluded that more vacation time resulted in a reduced risk and fewer deaths from coronary heart disease among those studied. In addition to the health benefits reported by researchers, another U.S. study found that employee work performance improved 80 percent after a vacation.

Luckily for American merchant mariners, one of the great things our profession has to offer is long stretches of vacation time. Most jobs ashore just do not provide the same opportunity to develop personal interests during time off. Typical work schedules on board a vessel can range from a 28/14 or a 30/30 rotation, to three months on and three months off for crews on deep-sea vessels — more than enough time to fulfill personal dreams and goals. In fact, I have sailed with men and women who spend their vacations following their passion, wherever it leads them.

For years, every holiday season there would be a picture of our neighbor Dan dressed up like Santa Claus somewhere in our local newspaper. Though his Southern drawl would have given away that he didn’t live at the North Pole, just by looking at the picture you’d swear he was the jolly old elf himself.  He was able to arrange his work schedule so he’d be off during the holidays, showing up at charity events, bringing gifts and passing out candy. At the end of the season, Dan would get his Santa suit cleaned and packed away until the next year, then head back to his job with a large West Coast towing company where he worked as an engineer on a tugboat running between Seattle and Alaska.
 
Many mariners, like Dan, choose to use their time off to give back to their community by doing charity work. Eric, a California Maritime Academy alumnus and longtime master, volunteers at our local food bank when he is not working. I recently saw him in the food bank delivery truck waiting to get on the same ferry my wife and I were taking to the mainland. He told me how good it felt to be helping people in need, and that he doesn’t mind giving up some of his vacation to do it. Another schoolmate of mine, Kathy, has volunteered as a mate and master on board various Mercy Ships — specifically outfitted hospital ships that provide free medical services to those in need, helping people in developing countries.

While some are enthusiastic about volunteering and helping others, many mariners indulge their thirst for improving and pushing the physical limits of their bodies during their weeks or months off. Bill, a cook I know, is a black belt in tae kwon do. Rick, a third engineer I sailed with, is a bicycling enthusiast who regularly rides 50 miles or more on trips during his vacation. Being from eastern Washington, I admit to having never surfed but have worked with a number of men and women who travel the world in search of the perfect wave, following the sun in their own real-life version of the movie “Endless Summer.” 

When I was a kid, my Dad would paint houses to earn some extra cash while on vacation from his job as an able seaman and boatswain. A mariner’s typical work schedule gives plenty of opportunity to make some extra money if desired. Jake, an assistant engineer I sailed with on a fish-processing ship, bought a farm in Indiana where he and his family raise crops and tend cattle. Dave, an old friend and chief mate, is a classic-gun dealer and collector. During a phone conversation we had a while back, Mike, a second mate I know, told me that he just added another rental house to his portfolio.

The American merchant marine is not immune to the unfortunate trend of shorter vacations for U.S. workers. Smaller crew sizes have resulted in longer work tours and less time off for both licensed and unlicensed mariners at various maritime companies. Classes and training required by the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW ’95) have already cut into many mariners’ vacation time. Now with the new classes and training mandated by the Manila Amendments to the code, set for full U.S. implementation on Jan. 1, 2017, many U.S. mariners could soon get even less vacation than workers ashore. 

We work in a demanding industry. After weeks or months at sea, a mariner needs vacation time to rest and de-stress. Traditionally our industry has recognized that. If the trend of infringing on and/or reducing vacation time for mariners continues, however, I believe that we will begin to see an associated increase in health-related issues and shipboard accidents, as well as a decrease in productivity. In my opinion, now is the time for government authorities and maritime companies to work together to stop this trend — before the onerous new requirements to the STCW code come into full effect in 2017.

Till next time, I wish you all happy holidays and smooth sailin’.

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