Maintenance payments should be enough to pay the bills

Mar 17, 2010 12:00 AM

I was the second mate on a 5,000-hp tug in Long Beach, Calif. It was late one January night at the end of a trip towing a 450-foot gasoline barge from the Gulf of Mexico. We’d just broken tow, and all we had to do was bring in a few tug lines used to tie up to the barge and then shift the boat to a nearby berth for the night.

The chief mate, in charge on deck, told me and the able seaman to begin taking in the bow lines. While we were bringing in the last one, it got hung up on the barge and we were working to free it. Then all of a sudden, perhaps thinking the lines were aboard, the captain began backing down hard on the engines. The chief mate screamed frantically on the radio as the line, with three wraps still on the winch drum, took a heavy strain. With only seconds to react, and knowing that the line could snap in an instant, the AB and I both dove to the deck away from the winch for cover. It surged free with a loud BANG and began flying off the drum — then I heard a cry of pain.

Having heard of seamen getting decapitated or cut in half in mooring line accidents, I was momentarily reluctant to turn to my shipmate for fear of what I’d see. When I did, I saw him holding his knee, and was concerned that he’d lost it or it was ripped open. Luckily, although the mooring line had hit him hard, the knee was still attached to his leg, but had already swelled to twice its normal size and was unnaturally twisted. Helping him sit up, I reassured him while the chief mate started first aid. He was then taken to a clinic ashore.

The AB was a seasoned professional and a great shipmate. I called him every week or so while I was off to see how he was doing. During one conversation, several weeks into his recuperation, he sounded irritated and uptight. “Your knee must really be hurting tonight,” I said. He replied, “Actually, my knee is getting a little better, and they think I’ll eventually be able to walk normally again. It’s my bank account that’s feeling worse, Kelly. Eight bucks a day maintenance money just doesn’t go far…”

Unlike injured employees ashore who are entitled to worker’s compensation payments amounting to much of their full pay while they cannot work, merchant mariners receive maintenance payments. Maintenance — an established right of seafarers for nearly 900 years — is money paid by the company to mariners whose shipboard injury or illness forces them to stop working on the vessel. The rate is usually set by company policy or is negotiated and included in a labor contract. These payments are supposed to be enough for a merchant seaman to obtain the basic necessities of life — food, clothing and shelter — while recovering and unable to work. Here in the United States, American merchant seamen are legally entitled to maintenance because of maritime laws such as the Shipowners’ Liability Convention of 1936 and the Jones Act.

With the dangers of working on a moving vessel and operating in all weather and sea conditions, it’s not surprising that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent yearly report, thousands of mariners were injured or taken ill while working on U.S.-flag commercial ships, boats and barges.

Despite an established legal right to maintenance payments, there have been numerous cases over the years where companies have callously refused to provide maintenance until forced to do so by a court action. A major 2009 U.S. Supreme Court case (Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend) established that employers not providing maintenance can be sued and forced to pay not only maintenance, but punitive damages as well. This case should alert companies that they now must comply with the law regarding maintenance payments or face greater consequences.

The Supreme Court decision pointed out that maintenance pays for the “food and lodging” expenses of an injured or ill mariner. U.S. law, however, doesn’t specify how much those payments should be. Today, American merchant mariners typically receive only $10 to $40 per day. In my opinion, that’s just not enough. I think that the U.S. Maritime Administration should establish a mandatory minimum maintenance rate for all U.S.-flag companies. This amount would be based on what it costs to live in the year 2010. It could then be automatically adjusted each year in accordance with the government’s cost-of-living index.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the only way many mariners can economically survive not being able to work, because of injury or illness, is to take legal action.

While I was on a 900-foot crude oil tanker running from Valdez, Alaska, to Barbers Point, Hawaii, two outside safety consultants — a British master and chief engineer — joined the ship in Valdez to conduct a safety audit. One day during the weeklong voyage, I was sitting in the officer’s mess enjoying dinner and conversation when the two Brits joined us. The conversation turned to what it’s like working on foreign-flag ships, and the second engineer asked if there were many American mariners working foreign-flag. The Brit chief engineer said, “No, Americans have a reputation for being lawsuit-happy.”

Almost instantly, a number of us angrily responded to what we considered a slanderous remark. Our captain, an old-timer with years at sea, got the last word in. He said, “Instead of $8 a day maintenance money, if we all got our full pay like you guys get when you’re out hurt, most of our lawsuits would never be filed.”

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin’.

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@professionalmariner.com. Edit Module