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 SIU and its affiliated school in Piney Point, Maryland, recently reached some milestones for 2020 – occasions that wouldn’t warrant much mention in non-pandemic times but which now signal progress.
The union in August resumed its monthly membership meetings, underscored by numerous safety precautions at the hiring halls. Because of the COVID-19 global pandemic, meetings hadn’t been conducted since March.
Similarly, the Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education (PHC) resumed classes the first week of August, following a summer hiatus (see pages 18-19). Extensive safety measures are in place at the school, and the first couple of weeks after reopening have proven encouraging. While those developments offered a boost to many attendees and a partial return to some normalcy, the coronavirus remains a worldwide crisis. By mid-August, there were upwards of 22 million cases worldwide, including more than 5.4 million in the United States. The virus had claimed nearly 775,000 lives around the world, including almost 170,000 in the U.S.
Virus Claims Union Member
One of those victims was GUDE Michael Vaughan, 63, who died July 28 after being stricken with COVID- 19. He had sailed with SIU since 2012, most recently aboard a Maersk vessel, and is believed to be the first active Seafarer to perish from the virus.
In a message to SIU crews throughout the Maersk fleet, SIU President Michael Sacco wrote, “On behalf of the union’s executive board, I extend our deepest and most sincere sympathies to the family, friends and shipmates of our fallen brother, GUDE Michael Vaughan. Many of you have heard me say over the years that I think of our organization as a family. In that spirit, this is a particularly difficult time for all concerned…. We all need to remain extremely vigilant and cautious as the scourge of COVID-19 continues. That is one way we can honor Michael Vaughan’s memory.”
Meanwhile, Sacco in late July joined with MM&P President Don Marcus and MEBA President Marshall Ainley in sending a letter to the commanding officer of the U.S. Military Sealift Command (MSC), Rear Adm. Michael Wettlaufer. The presidents voiced strong concerns about the agency’s months-long “gangways up” order on vessels crewed by federally employed CIVMARS (including members of the SIU Government Services Division), along with the July 22 suicide of Third Officer Jonathon J. Morris, 34, aboard the USNS Amelia Earhart.
That letter reads in part, “We are writing to you today to communicate our ongoing and increasingly grave concerns regarding the mental health and well-being of MSC’s CIVMARs. Many of the CIVMARS are members of our respective Unions and they share their thoughts and concerns with us on a regular basis. There is growing anger, frustration and despair throughout the fleet. People have a breaking point and many of these crewmembers are nearing it.
“The recent tragedy aboard the USNS Amelia Earhart speaks for itself,” the letter continues. “The actual cause of this mariner’s actions may never be known, however, the ongoing and selective ‘Gangways Up’ restrictions may have, in some part, contributed to this unnecessary and senseless act. We are genuinely worried that if restrictions are not eased, the likelihood of shipboard emotional instability will increase. Further, the stress-related fatigue caused by the ‘Gangways Up’ restrictions could lead to safety and mission degradation and operational mishaps.
“Couple the disparate nature of the Gangways-Up policy with the continuing crisis of overdue reliefs and you have potentially worse disasters waiting to happen on MSC vessels all over the world,” the union presidents added. “Waiting in-excess of 90 days for relief in some cases is contributing to the escalating anxiety and tensions aboard ships. The current situation is taking a terrible toll on the families of these mariners as well. The CIVMARS feel unsupported and abandoned.”
The correspondence concluded with a request for “your direct intervention and assistance.”
In an effort to promote safety at the hiring halls and at the PHC, many safeguards are in place. These include reconfiguring meeting areas, classrooms and dining facilities to promote distancing. Clear plastic dividers have been installed, along with hand-sanitizing stations. Floor markings are in place to make it easy to identify six-foot distances. Meal times at the school are being staggered, and face coverings are required at the PHC and at the halls.
Another adjustment took place prior to when the Able Seafarer-Deck class resumed in Piney Point. Students completed two weeks of authorized course-work online prior to arriving at the PHC, and they came away impressed with the process.
“It was a great experience,” said AB Willie Smith. “I learned a lot and I’m glad the school was able to pull it off. That was my first time doing an online class, and it was awesome.”
AB Juan Chevalier said it also was a new experience for him.
“I had to buy a laptop, but the whole process was really nice. It all turned out good,” he said.
AB Teva Kurth saw the online interaction as part of a bigger picture since the pandemic began. “It was pretty good, and I’m really happy the union did what they could to keep us working and get us where we need to be,” he said. “I’m very grateful.”