With the world still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, SIU crews around the globe continued delivering the goods as of early May.
At press time, a few SIU-crewed ships were on the verge of laying up due to lack of cargo – a direct result of the novel coronavirus that had infected more than one million people worldwide while claiming more than 66,000 lives in the United States. However, the vast majority of Seafarers-crewed vessels and tugs were still operating.
Two noteworthy exceptions are the cruise ship Pride of America and the passenger ferries of NY Waterway. The cruise ship has been idled in Honolulu since mid-March, and it remains the only known vessel where any SIU members (a minimal number) have been diagnosed with the virus. Most of NY Waterway’s ferries are out of service because of quarantines in New York and New Jersey.
With U.S. unemployment having already reached Great Recession levels and threatening to worsen, the U.S. Merchant Marine’s essential nature has been underscored while mariners remain on the job. Perhaps the two most visible examples were the CIVMAR-crewed hospital ships USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort, both of which were mobilized fairly early in the crisis. However, in terms of scope and sheer numbers, the larger contribution to U.S. national, economic and homeland security is being made by various cargo ships, tankers, tugs, barges and other platforms.
Meanwhile, the SIU in late April implemented protocols for larger-scale crew changes following an initial month-long moratorium that was designed to protect members’ safety. Preparations also were being made to reopen the hiring halls whenever it’s safe to do so (there is no target date for now), and modifications were made to some of the Seafarers Plans in order to assist participants.
The U.S. Coast Guard and Transportation Security Administration, respectively, also made numerous alterations covering testing for credentials, renewals, TWICs and more. Similarly, the State Department announced that U.S. Passport Services will accommodate mariners whose current valid passports expire within 13 months, and those who need a passport for international voyages. (Editor’s note: All of these developments are reported in detail on the SIU website. Check the COVID-19 section on our home page.)
While Seafarers largely seem to have adapted to myriad changes caused by the pandemic, one contentious subject exists in the SIU Government Services Division. The SIU (along with the MM&P and MEBA) filed a grievance against the Military Sealift Command because of a restriction-to-ship order that the unions charge is not being applied to non-crew members.
In part, the SIU grievance (which only applies to federal-sector mariners) reads, “The SIU recognizes we are living through extraordinary and distressing times and we support all reasonable efforts to keep the CIVMAR crews safe, but this restriction is not achieving that goal and is causing extreme distress to the unlicensed members we represent.”
Meanwhile, at least one SIU-crewed ship initially didn’t feel much of a disruption. The Global Sentinel (SubCom) had been at sea from Feb. 20 through most of April, laying cable on the West Coast.
“We are one of the safest ships out there,” noted Recertified Bosun Lee Hardman. “We are about to touch dry land and then head out for 70 more days. The crew that is coming on has been quarantined for 14 days in a hotel. The entire ship is grateful and thanks the union for their support.”
He added, “The crew has been great and just rolled with the punches.”
At press time, SIU headquarters continued operating with a skeleton crew, as did the SIU-affiliated Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education. The school was still training approximately 30 apprentices, but all upgrading courses had concluded.