Seamen’s Employment Laws



In 1983 Congress recodified and somewhat relaxed the complex laws dating to 1790 regulating the employment and living conditions of seamen that had been enacted to protect seaman from abusive employment practices. It is important to understand that the employment laws applicable to seamen are unique and differ from the standard fair labor employment standards that apply to the typical land based worker. “Seamen” as the term is used with regard to employment law is given a similar but slightly different definition than as is used with regard to the Jones Act.

To be a seaman for purposes of determining the applicability of maritime employment law you must be “an individual (except scientific personnel and sailing school employees/students) employed in any capacity on board a vessel owned by a citizen of the United States”. Most fishing vessels are exempt. Almost every commercial diver working from a U.S. vessel will qualify.


Under federal law, 46 U.S.C. § 10313 and 10540, the owner and master of a vessel must pay seaman all wages in full at the end of a voyage or within four days if the seaman is discharged. In practical application if your employer has a predetermined payment schedule such as the 1st and 15th of each month such is acceptable. If however you are discharged from employment payment must be made within 4 days.

Wages covered by maritime labor law include all compensation due semen for their on board service including bonuses, vacation pay, annual allowances and severance pay. Wages do not include fringe benefits. The law provides for a penalty of 2 days wages for each day payment is delayed. “Good Cause” is a defense to penalty wages. Reasonable belief that claimed wages are not due, a bona fide dispute as to the amount owed or an honest accounting mistake are all acceptable defenses to a penalty claim.

The most frequent question Delise & Hall receives regarding labor and wage law involves overtime. While most land based workers are statutorily entitled to receive 1.5 times their hourly rate over 8 hours, this law does not apply to seamen. There is a dispute among the courts regarding the applicability of various state wage laws but the majority opinion is that state law also does not apply to overtime claims. Accordingly overtime pay for seamen is not legally required and should be addressed in any employment agreement.


46 U.S.C. § 11109 prohibits the attachment of a seaman’s wages except for support of a spouse or minor child as may be ordered by a court.

Federal statutes addressing age, race and sexual discrimination are applicable to seamen meaning that a seaman can bring a discrimination claim.


The general rule of maritime law is that absent constraints imposed by an employment agreement or federal discrimination law an employer may terminate the employment of an employee at will with or without cause. Basically this means that you can be fired at any time for any non discriminatory reason. Some courts however have not allowed an employer to fire an employee as a result of a personal injury claim. Additionally the “whistleblower protection statute” protects seaman who report statutory violations from wrongful discharge.