Deemed “essential workers” by the federal government, SIU members remained on the job as the world continued grappling with a devastating pandemic.
By early April, the coronavirus outbreak had sickened hundreds of thousands around the world, killed tens of thousands, and severely damaged the global economy. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said the COVID-19 pandemic signaled a challenge unseen since World War II.
“It is a combination, on one hand, of a disease that represents a threat to everybody in the world and, second, because it has an economic impact that will bring a recession that probably has no parallel in the recent past,” he said. “This is, indeed, the most challenging crisis we have faced since the Second World War.”
For the SIU, the pandemic has led to unprecedented steps aimed at protecting individual safety while still facilitating the flow of essential commerce along with military support.
In late March, the union announced that its hiring halls were closed to nonemployees until further notice, although members can still conduct their union business by phone, email and fax. The SIU also publicized an agreement with many of its contracted companies that included temporary restrictions to ship, suspension of crew reliefs, and detailed protocols for combatting the virus.
At press time, the Seafarers Health and Benefits Plan was finalizing modifications to various benefits in order to help members and their dependents.
The union-affiliated Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education (PHC), located in Piney Point, Maryland, also had taken exceptional steps to protect apprentices, upgraders and employees. The school in mid-March cancelled or postponed all upcoming classes. However, the PHC also continued to conduct courses already underway, while giving students the option to drop the class and leave, without penalty. At press time, only around a dozen upgraders were at the school, along with around 50 apprentices. Many steps were being taken to keep classrooms, offices and other parts of the campus sanitized while observing “social distancing,” a term that has come to dominate modern dialogue.
SIU headquarters cut back to a skeleton crew and was closed to visitors. Employees continued processing claims, pension checks and vacation applications. (Those Seafarers and retirees not already signed up for direct deposit were encouraged to enroll.) The membership assistance department and others also remained open, with reduced staff on hand and others teleworking. Incredibly, as of March 31, the only members who’d been formally diagnosed with the coronavirus were aboard the cruise ship Pride of America. A very small number of positive cases were being addressed aboard the vessel. According to regular communications between the union, company and crew members, morale remained good, and all concerned were handling the situation well.
Similarly, rank-and-file reaction to the extraordinary circumstances largely seemed relatively upbeat and determined, notwithstanding questions about possible extra pay, restriction to ship, and crew changes. Seafarers on social media regularly encouraged each other, whether they were working or stuck at home because of various government orders. Members expressed a desire to rise to the occasion, stick together and get through the pandemic, and they clearly maintained a sense of humor despite the challenging circumstances.
Recertified Steward Karl Meyer wrote, “Sitting on the hook off Tianjin, China, moving boxes. Commerce does not stop, nor do we.”
Chief Cook Sherron DeCoteau posted, “I’m on the beach, but being safe and prepared to relieve my shipmates when needed.”
Chief Steward Jorcell Davis encouraged his fellow Seafarers with this popular post: “Steward depart, this is your time to do what you do best. People’s spirits are down and all they have to look forward to is three hot meals and a paycheck…. Put your foot on the gas and go above and beyond. We control the morale on the ships…. Bon voyage, stay safe out there.”
While most SIU-crewed vessels (deep sea, Great Lakes and inland) remained in operation, there were at least two notable exceptions. One is the aforementioned Pride of America. The other, collectively, is the passenger ferries owned and operated by NY Waterway.
Most of NY Waterway’s customers are daily commuters. With New York at the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S., the company quickly went from having 180 captains and deckhands working aboard dozens of boats to only around a dozen mariners and two or three ferries.
By contrast, the SIU-crewed hospital ships USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort seemed to give the nation a boost when they were mobilized in late March. President Trump travelled to Norfolk, Virginia, to help see off the Comfort as it left for New York; Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly visited the Mercy in Los Angeles.
Those vessels’ respective crews include members of the SIU Government Services Division; the Masters, Mates and Pilots; and the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association.
The hospital ships were deployed to help relieve overcrowding at hospitals by taking on non-coronavirus patients.
“This great ship behind me is a 70,000- ton message of hope and solidarity to the incredible people of New York, a place I know very well, a place I love,” Trump said, standing in front of the gleaming white hull of the Comfort. “We’re here for you. We are fighting for you and we are with you all the way and we always will be. You have the unwavering support of the entire nation.”
“I would like to personally thank the men and women embarked aboard Mercy,” said Modly. “I’m proud of the hard work and agility they demonstrated to get the Mercy to Los Angeles (from San Diego) and begin accepting patients almost immediately.
“The white hull and red cross of this ship have been a welcome sight around the world, standing at the forefront of our humanitarian mission,” he continued. “And now this great ship is serving our own people in this time of need, providing critical surge hospital capacity to the people of Los Angeles. This is just one of the many ways the Department of the Navy is responding to protect the American people in this time of need.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Maritime Center posted a series of updates about credentialing and customer service. All 17 of the agency’s regional examination centers and three monitoring units are closed to the public until further notice. Various extensions have been given for merchant mariner credentials, medical certificates and STCW endorsements. Drug-testing protocols also have been modified.