The Jones Act, enacted in 1920, is perhaps as noteworthy for what it failed to address as it was for what it did.
Seamen’s rights advocates applauded the act for allowing maritime workers to hold their employers accountable for death or injury suffered at sea. Prior to its enactment, although existing maritime laws did consider a vessel’s owner responsible for providing on-board workers with a seaworthy vessel on which to labor, their employers had never been subject to liability.
Workers covered under the Jones Act include but are not limited to:
- Seamen and shipmasters
- Harbor pilots
- Ship-board technicians
- Helicopter pilots
- Workers on tugboats, barges, ships and supply boats
In more recent times, the courts have extended the definition of seaman to include oil workers who labor on semi-submersible or jack-up offshore oil rigs. To qualify, these apparatuses must be unattached or detachable in any way to the ocean floor and capable of movement under tow in navigable waters.
What the Jones Act Fails to Do
In spite of its many benefits, the Jones Act suffers from one remarkable flaw: It has never clearly defined the word seaman. This omission has left its interpretation up to the courts on a case-by-case basis. However, despite that ambiguity, one fact has always remained unquestioned; the protections of the Jones Act have never extended to shipbuilders or dockworkers.
Since standard workers’ compensation plans also failed to cover these employees, the federal government stepped in, enacting for their security the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act of 1927.
How the Longshore Act Takes Up the Slack
The benefits of the Longshore Act extend to any worker whose standard occupation involves the building, repairing, loading or unloading of seagoing vessels. Under its terms, the qualifying injury can have taken place either on board a vessel on navigable waters or on a pier, wharf, shipping terminal or dry dock in close proximity to them.
Workers covered under the Longshore Act include but are not limited to:
- Harbor workers
- Ship repairers
- Ship breakers
Prior to its enactment, these maritime workers enjoyed little recourse when injured on the job. However, since the Longshore Act exists to close the gaps left by the Jones Act, workers already covered under the latter are ineligible for its benefits. The same is true of any maritime worker otherwise protected by workers’ compensation.
Benefits Under the Longshore Act
The Longshore Act holds the employer responsible for all reasonable medical and rehabilitative expenses of a qualifying employee injured on the job. Additional benefits include payments amounting to two-thirds of the injured employee’s weekly wage. These remain payable for as long as the disability persists.
In case of fatal injury, the act also extends wrongful death benefits to the survivors. A spouse will receive benefits equal to 50 percent of the deceased worker’s average wage with an additional 16 percent in cases involving children.
The act specifically prohibits the employer from engaging in retaliation or discrimination against an injured employee who seeks to obtain his rightful compensation.
The Longshore Act has provided a great benefit to those maritime workers who previously labored with insufficient coverage and largely at their own risk.