BLOOD ON BROWN WATER CHAPTER 11
You May Never Be Able to Go Home Again.
For over one hundred years in the American-flag international trades seamen have had an assured way to get home if they did not complete the intended voyage they signed on for. If all else failed, a stranded American seaman in a foreign port could report to the nearest U.S. Consul who could require the next departing American ship to carry the seaman back to the United States. Jones Act and other work boat seamen often travel hundreds of miles to their embarkation point which in many cases has to be considered the place where they catch the company van that transports them to the crew change point. This final van ride can be several hours in duration. When these employees are discharged for any reason, sometimes including simply being ill, companies feel free to simply abandon them on the side of the nearest road and often do so. Here is an example case and an explanation of the practice as we learned it from our mariners.
Abandoning Mariners Without Transportation Home
[Source: NMA Report #R-202, Rev. 5 and Newsletter #54]
Our Association received a number of calls from distressed mariners who, for various reasons, were abandoned by their employers and told to furnish their own transportation home.
Since the Coast Guard “superintends” our merchant mariners, we took the opportunity to inform them of a “typical” case in a letter dated Dec. 18, 2007 to the attention of the Eighth District Commander through our Coast Guard Liaison Officer. The Situation Captain related to me that his former employer told to get out of his truck miles away from home as a result
of a disagreement. Captain reportedly notified the boat’s charterer (Kirby Inland Marine) and they sent a vehicle to pick him up and charged the vessel’s operating company $185.00 for doing so. The charterer reportedly then billed the boat owner for the $185.00 transportation charge. The boat owner, in turn, deducted $185.00 from Captain ’s wages. Unfortunately, other towing companies simply ditch unwanted crewmembers “in the middle of nowhere.” In
fact, this practice has become quite common. In two recent cases, Versatility Marine (now out of business) put two seriously ill mariners off their towboat in Texas and told to find their own way home to Mississippi and Florida respectively – as reported in the next case (below).
We asked the Coast Guard to comment on these stories and to provide guidance for our mariners. We asked that the Coast Guard give us their “position” on grievances involving abandonment without travel funds remembering that the mariners we represent are, for the most part, not members of a labor union that have grievance procedures established under a collective bargaining agreement.
Coast Guard Response
Dear Mr. Block:
I am writing in response to your letter dated-Dec. 18, 2007 in which you described several instances where mariners were reportedly discharged in remote locations by their employers and left to make their way home at their own expense. Since this is inherently a labor issue, and thus outside the purview of our authority, the Coast Guard does not have an opinion about the practice of discharging mariners in remote locations without arranged transportation or
travel reimbursement. As you are aware, there are many factors that influence how and where a mariner is discharged from a vessel. Company policy, contractual agreements, and the circumstances surrounding the mariner's discharge (i.e. completed their hitch, quit, terminated, illness, etc.) may all factor into whether the mariner is provided transportation or travel reimbursement. Although it would be inappropriate for the Coast Guard to take a position or directly assist a mariner with a grievance relating to a labor issue, I can offer the following suggestions.
● Mariners are encouraged to know the rights and protections afforded them under Federal and State labor laws. Individuals interested in researching labor related issues may consult the U.S. Department of Labor's employment law assistance (ELAWS) website at http://www.dol.gov/elaws/.
● Additionally, mariners should have a thorough knowledge of all company policy and contractual agreements relating to transportation or travel reimbursement following their discharge from the vessel.
● In those instances where pre-existing policy or contractual agreements do not exist, mariners are encouraged to consult with their employers and establish a clear understanding regarding whether they will be provided transportation or travel reimbursement prior to joining the vessel. If you have any additional questions regarding this issue, please contact Commander Jim Stewart at (504) 671- 2164. Sincerely, s/T.D. Hooper, Captain, U.S. Coast Guard – Chief, Prevention Division, By Direction of the Commander, Eighth Coast Guard District
The “Labor Issue” Excuse
We find the Coast Guard often cites the “labor issue” to avoid any responsibility for looking out for the legitimate interests of working mariners. From our experience, the Coast Guard shows little real interest in our mariners safety, health and welfare. When in doubt, we suggest that our mariners forget about the Coast Guard and ask a maritime lawyer for legal advice.
Although our Association is not a union, we urge mariners to join a labor union in order to establish a contractual relationship to effectively address this and other related issues. Until you do this, plan to carry enough cash and a working cell phone so you can get home on your own or at least summon help. You are on your own! Don’t expect the Coast Guard to help you!