Is Your Sea Contract Shipshape? Maritime Employment Agreement Essentials.

Whether you've sailed the Seven Seas or are an adventurous landlubber shakily signing onto a ship for the first time, before your voyage begins you'll probably be endorsing an employment contract. But, even old salts often overlook important provisions which could affect their safety, rights as a worker, and pay.

Maritime attorneys are the most effective resource for ensuring that the terms of your sea contact are acceptable before you walk down the gangplank. Still, even a basic understanding of what you should look for in a sea contract can help keep you out of hot water.

Carefully review the written agreement

While a firm handshake and a resolute nod may have sufficed in the Golden Age of Sail, today anyone seeking employment on a ship should insist on a written contract - and on being provided with a complete copy. After all, what good is making an agreement if you are later unable to prove exactly what you agreed to? A typical sea contract may be made with the ship itself in its capacity as a corporate entity, or directly with the master of the ship.

You should always know precisely what your sea contract contains. Your contract is the final word on many terms of your employment, and you must read it in its entirety, including the fine print. It is never acceptable to sign a blank contract or incomplete form, trusting the other party to fill in the gaps.

Working conditions, compensation for damages can be problem areas

Any aspect of your sea contract which looks troublesome after your initial review should be flagged for further discussion with an attorney. But, some specific items are especially important to consider.

Working conditions should be clearly outlined in any sea contract - if not, take it as a contractual distress flare. The specific details of working hours, working days and paid leave must all be covered. In addition, you should check to make sure your contract lives up to minimum standards set by the International Labor Organization (ILO). The ILO promulgates established standards for pay scale and overtime compensation that you may want referenced in your sea contract.

Any clauses regarding compensation for damages are also deserving of careful scrutiny. Every seaman is entitled to sail in a seaworthy vessel, meaning that the vessel is watertight and carries proper equipment and a competent crew. In addition, maritime employers have a duty to provide seamen with maintenance and cure for any injury or ailment that manifests while the seaman is in service of the vessel, whether or not the vessel owner is at fault. Maintenance is a daily stipend to cover room and board that the seaman otherwise would have been provided with onboard the vessel, and cure is the cost of medical treatment until the seaman has reached maximum medical improvement.

If a seaman falls ill or is injured in the course of a voyage, the vessel also has a duty to pay the seaman's wages for the remainder of the voyage. A seaman may be entitled to maintenance and cure even for injuries sustained off the vessel while on shore leave or in the process of reporting for duty. These rights are preserved regardless of what the employment contract says, although a contract may in some cases predetermine the amount provided as maintenance.

Your maritime employment contract may affect your future rights to certain types of compensation you are entitled to for shipboard injuries. Make sure that terms governing compensation for loss of property, physical injury, mental trauma and death (with compensation payable to your named beneficiary) are in line with industry standards.

Explore the Jones Act, other legal protections for injured seamen

Those who work on dry land are protected by state workers' compensation laws that do not extend to most maritime workers. However, the Jones Act grants seamen protection from employment-related injuries. While land-based workers are not required to prove fault to recover for on-the-job injuries, under the Jones Act, a seaman must prove their injury was caused by the negligence of their employer or the unseaworthiness of the vessel in order to collect monetary damages. Surviving relatives of maritime workers may also have claims for wrongful death under the Jones Act.

Regardless of what your contract says, your rights under the Jones Act and the doctrine of unseaworthiness are preserved.

If you are about to take a job on a ship, consider taking your sea contract to a qualified maritime law attorney for review. On the other hand, if you have recently returned to port after suffering an injury at sea, your attorney can help ensure that you receive the compensation you are due under the terms of your contract and any other applicable law. Contact an experienced maritime lawyer today to learn more.

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