Editor’s note: SIU members are encouraged to regularly check the union’s website for the latest union-specific news about the pandemic. There is a prominent COVID-19 section on the home page. Members also may sign up for text alerts by texting the word “join” (without the quotation marks) to 97779.
The American maritime industry seemingly mirrored the nation at large from mid- June to mid-July when it came to combatting the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus surged in numerous states, and it hit home for the union, too.
As of July 14, there had been more than 3.4 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. and more than 138,000 deaths. Worldwide, those figures were more than 13.1 million cases and at least 571,000 deaths.
The vast majority of the SIU-crewed fleet is still operating, as Seafarers live up to their federally designated role as essential workers. But, SIU members from several ships and tugs recently contracted COVID-19, as did at least a couple of crew members from ATBs. New cases were reported aboard the USNS Grumman, whose crew includes members of the SIU Government Services Division. At least two SIU employees and one employee of the SIU-affiliated United Industrial Workers (UIW) were diagnosed with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The uptick in cases caused three hiring halls to close for precautionary reasons within a couple of weeks after they’d reopened June 15. At press time, the halls in Jersey City, New Jersey and Wilmington, California, had again reopened; the hall in Houston was expected to reopen soon. Perhaps the most prominent recent instance of shipboard COVID-19 in the U.S.- flag fleet occurred in late June, aboard the Maersk Idaho. Eleven mariners, including five SIU members, tested positive. One crew member was hospitalized but recovered (see sidebar). Thankfully, the other mariners who tested positive experienced few or no symptoms.
Within the industry, Maersk was hailed for its quick, comprehensive plan to safely vacate the crew, move them to a quarantine facility, professionally clean the vessel, and then bring on a new crew. They worked with the Coast Guard, medical professionals and other authorities to ensure diligence, efficiency and safety. The SIU also worked closely with the crew and company to provide support and to secure additional testing for crews on other American-flag Maersk ships.
Weeks later, all concerned received an unwelcome reminder that even the best plans, no matter how well-executed, cannot ensure total safety from the virus. At least a couple of the replacement crew members tested positive, so the vessel went into a quarantined state at a Florida anchorage.
Despite the challenges, there were positive developments as well. They included a return to work for many Seafarers employed by NY Waterway, which operates passenger ferries between New York and New Jersey. The company’s waterborne operations essentially shut down when those states were at their combined nadir.
Additionally, and following months of intensive preparation, the SIU-affiliated Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education was scheduled to reopen Aug. 1. The school (located in Piney Point, Maryland) initially scheduled several upgrading courses and plans to resume training apprentices in September.
Moreover, most of the hiring halls stayed open without interruption, as members and staff easily adjusted to new safety protocols. Those steps include the by-now-standard face coverings, social distancing, temperature checks, hand sanitizing, and use of protective barriers.
Progress was made with overseas crew changes for American-flag ships as the SIU continued working with other unions, vessel operators, the Maritime Administration and the State Department to facilitate those reliefs. Operators also have chartered two private planes for reliefs in Diego Garcia.
The international maritime community hasn’t always been as fortunate. The International Maritime Organization and International Transport Workers’ Federation are leading the fight on behalf of foreign crews who in many cases have worked for months beyond their scheduled reliefs, mostly due to travel restrictions.
It also has been a busy legislative stretch for U.S. maritime. At press time, floor action was expected on the National Defense Authorization Act, which funds most key commercial maritime government programs. Additionally, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-New York) and Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) last month introduced a new bill to provide financial relief for maritime stakeholders who’ve been impacted by the pandemic.
The House is scheduled to adjourn for recess on July 31, while the Senate will depart on Aug. 7. Both chambers are slated to return Sept. 8 before adjourning in early October for the run-up to the November 3 presidential election.