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“Seaing” the Big Picture: Employment Rights For Seafarers and Cruise Ship Employees (International Seafarers’ Bill of Rights and the Jones Act)


Cruise ships are big business, especially in states like California and Florida. In California, and according to the most recent figures from the Port of Los Angeles, over 500,000 cruise ship passengers come through that port alone each year. And taking care of all those passengers requires a substantial investment in a ship’s crew.

But cruise ship workers and other seafarers are not like other employees who work for more traditional, land-based businesses. Cruise ships often operate outside the waters of the United States, and the vessels themselves are frequently registered to a foreign country. So where does that leave the employees in terms of their legal rights?

U.S. Law

Certain federal laws, like the Jones Act, provides certain protections to people working on cruise ships. Under the Jones Act, if a seafarer is injured in the “course of employment,” they can sue the ship operator (or other employer) for civil damages in U.S. courts. And if a seafarer dies in a shipboard accident, his or her estate can also bring a Jones Act claim for damages.

Of critical importance, the Jones Act authorizes a court to award both “maintenance and cure”–the equivalent of workers’ compensation for employees who work on the U.S. mainland–as well separate damages arising from an employer’s negligence.

It must be understood, however, that there are certain limitations to Jones Act rights. First, an injured seafarer can only bring a claim if they are a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident. Second, the actual injury must occur while the cruise ship or other vessel is in U.S. territorial waters or the “waters overlaying the continental shelf.” So if the injured seafarer is not a U.S. citizen or resident, or their injury occurs while their vessel is in foreign waters, the Jones Act will not cover their damages.

Finally, the Jones Act has a statute of limitations, i.e., a time limit on potential claims. The limitations period is three years from the date of the injury.

International Law

Even where the Jones Act does not apply, cruise ship employees and other seafarers may also find a legal remedy under the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), an international treaty ratified by over 80 countries (although not the United States). The Convention, also called the “International Seafarers’ Bill of Rights,” establishes certain minimum standards for working ages, job safety, training, and payment.

For example, the MLC states a shipboard employee may not be “on duty” more than 14 hours per 24-hour period. Employees must also be allowed 6 hours of rest between individual shifts. The MLC also requires maritime employers to provide no-cost medical care to seafarers at a level of quality “comparable” to what they would receive at an on-shore facility.

If you have additional questions or concerns about how either the Jones Act or the MLC might apply to your situation, contact an experienced California employment law attorney right away.




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* Cathleen Scott is licensed to practice in Florida only.

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