Contracted Employee Rights Under the Jones Act

The Jones Act governs several aspects of maritime trade between U.S. cities. It stipulates that passengers and cargo going from one American port to another must be carried on U.S.-flagged, crewed, and owned vessels. The Act’s main intent is to protect American maritime industry from foreign competition and establish a merchant marine. However, it also provides seamen with extra rights not provided by previous maritime laws, including the right to seek legal remedy from employers in the event they are injured while on the job. This includes not only full-time employees, but in many instances, contractors as well.

Compared to the average full-time worker who has a 9-to-5 job on land, seamen work under a multitude of challenging conditions. The environment can often be hostile to vessels even on an inland body of water, vessels can have mechanical difficulties while underway, fires may break out, or a captain may make a navigational error and run the vessel into a reef or a sandbar. Even if a seaman has years of experience and is careful on the job, there’s always a chance that an injury will result if a vessel is unseaworthy or that the owner or captain is negligent.

The Jones Act and Independent Contractors

The Jones Act’s economic decrees make it expensive for U.S. shipping companies to operate under its U.S.-flag rules and still make a profit. Therefore, many employers avoid the Act by registering their ships under other countries’ flags. They also attempt to save money by contracting seamen to work on specific vessels on a per-voyage basis. Employers can then claim that the seamen are not full-time employees but independent contractors.

Even though shipping companies that hire independent contractors can save money on Social Security and Medicare taxes, or various types of insurance, they are not exempt from following the Jones Act’s clauses on seamen’s rights. Even if a court agrees with the company or the vessel’s owner that a seaman was hired under contract and is not a full-time employee, it doesn’t prohibit an injured seaman from filing a Jones Act lawsuit.

In order to determine if an employer can use an seaman’s status as an independent contractor as a reason to withhold Jones Act remedies such as maintenance and cure or lost wages, a court must examine:

  • How much direct supervision was done
  • How much control over how, where, and when a job is done was exercised
  • How the worker was paid
  • The authority to hire and fire workers
  • The worker’s professional relationship with the employer

In the context of the Jones Act, if the employer closely supervises a seaman hired as a contracted employee or has control over the day-to-day tasks assigned, the seaman is considered to be an employee. In addition, if a seaman is paid by direct deposit or if the company could not hire someone else to do the assigned work, employee status still applies.

Although the seaman must prove that an employment relationship existed with the vessel operator or owner, the Borrowed Servant Doctrine applies in Jones Act lawsuits involving contracted employees. For Jones Act purposes, the doctrine states that an injured person can be considered a crew member, thereby qualifying the plaintiff as a seaman. Even if the seaman was contracted for one trip on one vessel and did not work for the employer before, Jones Act protection is not automatically precluded by independent contractor status.