Last spring, Jackie Smith (we’ve changed her name) had taken a freelance cook/stew gig in The Bahamas under the premise that she would potentially get hired full time after the trip.
A few days into the trip, it became abundantly clear that “the captain cultivated a hostile working environment,” she says.
Two weeks in, after heaps of criticism and snarky comments, Smith got offered a more suitable role and decided to leave. She offered nearly two weeks’ notice, but the captain — who had been through seven cook/stews in 22 months — told her to leave the next day. Six months later, she’s still trying to get paid for the weeks she worked.
Smith is far from alone in her experience. The topic of unpaid wages frequently appears on yachting Facebook pages and throughout the community. It happens more than many would like to admit, and many crewmembers, like Smith, struggle to navigate getting paid the money they’re owed for the time and work they’ve put in. To help offer a guide to remedying nonpayment of wages, Dockwalk spoke to crew who have gone through the experience and maritime attorneys about the best way to approach these tricky — and unfair — situations.
“This is a huge issue in the industry,” Smith says. When she was hired, Smith was assured she would be paid by check from the owner’s business on the 15th and 30th of each month. She figured when she got back from The Bahamas a check would be cut and sent to her, and she could move on with her life. That’s not what happened.
To avoid these complicated maneuvers, Holzberg stresses the importance of getting a signed contract for every job, whether it’s a freelance or full-time position.
After realizing the money was not coming, Smith sent several texts to the captain as well as one to the owner’s wife. The wife was concerned about all the turnover and asked Smith what happened. She confided to Smith that the vessel loses a cook/stew on every trip they take, and she wanted to understand what was happening on board. “I assured her, ‘It’s not you; it’s your captain,’” Smith says.
Despite the honest conversation, the wife did little to help Smith get paid. Since June, Smith has texted the wife and sent multiple emails to the captain but has essentially been ghosted by everyone aboard. “All of my outreach has been completely ignored,” she says.
Finding an attorney to help her get paid has been just as difficult. Over the last three months, she’s reached out to three different attorneys. One just didn’t respond. Another asked for a bunch of information and “talked a big game” before disappearing.
“I’ve heard several people say they have not been paid by boats and to try and get attorneys to help you out is really difficult,” Smith says. “How is this issue supposed to be resolved if there is no one there to help you?”
Finally, Smith was able to find one attorney who is helping her to put a lien on the boat, which he says should get her paid. He sent her a list of documents he needed and charged her about $350 to get it done. “He said putting a lien on the boat is the quickest way to solve the issue,” says Smith of the American-flagged vessel. “It’s like a black mark that the mortgage company very much frowns upon, and so do a lot of marinas.”
Smith was fortunate that her attorney agreed to take on her case and file the lien, a task that is doable but not easy to do without legal representation. These things take time and effort, and attorneys, like crew, want to ensure they will get paid for the work that they do.
“It has to be something the attorney feels rises to a certain level where it can be done and is worth pursing for that attorney,” says Florida-based maritime attorney Louis M. Holzberg. “You’re doing something called ‘arresting the vessel,’ saying this vessel can’t move from this dock until the lien is satisfied.”
To avoid these complicated maneuvers, Holzberg stresses the importance of getting a signed contract for every job, whether it’s a freelance or full-time position. These contracts should state the agreed upon wages whether per day, week, or month; dates of employment; expectations in the role; included benefits (such as meals); and the method and time frame for being paid. It’s also important to note any references to arbitration and time frames around payment, etc.
It happens more than many would like to admit, but many crewmembers, like Smith, struggle to navigate getting paid the money they’re owed for the time and work they’ve put in.
If a captain is unwilling to offer a written contract, it is very important for crew to clearly document every detail about the job in writing. Email or text documents will hold up in the event that an unpaid wage case needs to go to court.
While it’s not worth it for many lawyers to take on a $5,000 unpaid wage case, crew can file themselves in small claims court. In Florida, for example, that includes anything under $8,000. “The most important thing is having a contract, even if your contract is not formalized,” Holzberg says. “The best thing to do is document, document, document.”
The flag of the vessel stipulates the laws of the contracts, which can make it difficult for crew to navigate — something that crew should be aware of and take into consideration. The flag of the vessel is also the jurisdiction in which crew should technically file a claim, for example The Bahamas. But Holzberg says crew could still try to file in Florida or wherever they may be located; however, there’s a chance that the case could be thrown out of court and would need to be filed in the flag state.
In the U.S., at least, there are certain scenarios that fall under the Jones Act, a federal statute that includes fines and penalties for vessel owners who do not meet certain obligations. One is that a vessel must be seaworthy. Say a crewmember gets injured on stairs that haven’t been well maintained or some sort of similar situation – that would be a breach of the Jones Act.
If that is the case, or even if there’s an injury not related to the state of the vessel, or a crewmember just gets sick, under the Jones Act they are entitled to maintenance and cure. These general maritime obligations essentially state that crew are entitled to get paid (maintenance) for the duration of the time they are unable to work, and the vessel owner needs to pay for any related medical expenses (cure).
Attorneys are far more willing to take on cases that fall under the Jones Act because it ensures they will get compensated, as will their clients.
“Most lawyers can’t get involved unless there’s a breach of Jones Act because there are penalties involved,” Holzberg says. “Most lawyers charge around $250 and hour, so that’s $2,500 for a 10-hour case. If the amount in dispute isn’t much different, who can take that on, unless there’s an attorney fee provision in the contract?”
If a captain is unwilling to offer a written contract, it is very important for crew to clearly document every detail about the job in writing.
Freelance engineer Joe Karandy wasn’t in the U.S. or working on a U.S.-flagged vessel when he and most of the crew on the vessel contracted Covid-19 a few years back. He was subsequently let go, and not paid his maintenance. Karandy did have a contract. He was working on an 80-meter Cayman-flagged vessel in Barcelona at the time and was put up in a hotel for quarantine for the 15 days — through Christmas and New Year — he was testing positive. Two months later, he still had not gotten paid, unlike his fellow full-time crewmembers who were also let go from the program.
Karandy contacted his maritime professional union Nautilus International for help. He sent representatives a copy of his contract and all the emails he sent and received from the management company. The union sent a letter to the management company. They quickly replied that Karandy needed a doctor’s note despite never telling him about the requirement while he was sitting in a hotel at the height of the pandemic, when public health officials advised against seeing a doctor for anyone who wasn’t in critical condition.
“The boat could not repatriate me until I was Covid-negative,” Karandy says. “Therefore, they were responsible for paying me and feeding me as per the Cayman regulations at that time. By housing and feeding me, they acknowledged I had Covid-19 and could not leave. At the same time, they say I cannot get paid until I proved I was sick.”
A year later, after fighting the note requirement, Karandy gave up and paid a doctor to confirm that he had had Covid-19 and that he should not have been working during that time and should self-isolate. The months of emails and going back and forth with the management company took a frustrating toll. “It would have been really easy in the beginning if they said ‘Just get a note from the doctor you saw and then we’ll pay it,’” he says.
As a longtime freelancer, this was not the first time Karandy had been in a nonpayment situation, which is why he’s found it worth his while to pay Nautilus International’s annual fees. But he has also learned some very important lessons on how to protect himself along the way. He always demands a contract, has representatives from Nautilus review it, and makes sure it is signed by the captain before starting work. When he gets on board, he documents that he is on the vessel working by snapping photos of the watch schedule, crew list, and any other documentation on board.
“I’ve heard of people getting gaslighted like they weren’t on the boat when they’ve attempted to get paid,” he says. “Somebody once told me, right when you get on board take a picture of the watch schedule, engineering log you sign, and keep any correspondence with the captain.”
In the two or three cases in which Karandy has reached out to Nautilus for help getting paid, all this documentation has helped to move things along quickly — and help him get his money. “They’re there for when it gets really bad,” Karandy says. “I try to use them when I know I need a letter to leverage the captain or management company.”
As for Smith, she’s still feeling overwhelmed and frustrated in her attempts to get paid for the work that she did, and the demeaning behavior of the captain who hasn’t paid her has made her question whether she event wants to stick around the industry.
“It’s been such a turnoff that I’m really contemplating leaving yachting after three years,” Smith says. “It feels like an uphill battle where you’re being taken advantage of in a way that I have not experienced in corporate America. It’s like these rich people know they can get away with this stuff and that’s why they do it.”
This feature was originally published in the January 2024 issue of Dockwalk.