COVID-19 Crisis Prompts Companies to Seek Jones Act Suspension

- Arnold & Itkin LLP

Last week, our team reported about the situation that offshore workers are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic. As workers around the nation are working from home, the men and women on offshore oil drilling rigs can’t enjoy the peace of mind offered by telecommuting. Instead, they’re continuing to work miles away from medical care, while hoping that they and their fellow workers aren’t spreading the virus to each other in a confined space.  

Now, with reduced driving because of stay-at-home orders nationwide, petroleum consumption in the United States has dipped to the lowest it’s been in decades. To help them recover from losses associated with a tattered oil market, some companies have requested the suspension of the Jones Act to lower operational costs.

While doing so could save them money, it also eliminates an important component of safety for offshore workers: accountability. 

What Is the Jones Act? 

The Jones Act is also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920. When it was created, it did two important things for the American offshore industry. First, it requires all vessels carrying goods between U.S. ports and in U.S. waters to fly an American flag and to be crewed by American citizens and residents. This protects the American maritime industry by making sure companies don’t try to save money by using vessels under the jurisdiction of other countries.  

The second, and possibly most important, aspect of the Jones Act is the rights that it provides to seamen. Most notably, it holds vessel owners liable for work-related accidents that cause injury or death to their crew. Before the Jones Act, offshore workers had limited ability to pursue compensation after sustaining injuries while on the job.  

Why Suspending the Jones Act During COVID-19 Could be Problematic for Workers 

The Jones Act has been suspended because of natural disasters in the past. The federal government suspended the law after Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, and Hurricane Maria devastated parts of the United States. Oil companies have brought up suspending the Jones Act as a form of economic relief during a time when no one is buying their product. While doing so could help them financially, it’s important to remember how important the Jones Act is for protecting workers facing the possibility of a virus outbreak on their vessel.  

If the wrong parts of the Jones Act are suspended, offshore companies could be free from accountability needed to make sure they protect workers from COVID-19 and other work-related hazards. The federal government has already provided drilling companies with the authority to set their own safety regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has resulted in mixed results for workers. One company has elected to keep all sick workers at home and has increased the length of time that healthy workers are to stay on their rigs. Without the Jones Act, these workers could face the possibility of not being able to hold their employers accountable for injuries caused by being overworked.  

If you’ve sustained injuries during the COVID-19 crisis while working on an oil rig, call Arnold & Itkin at (888) 493-1629 for a free consultation. Our offshore COVID-19 lawyers are ready to help. 

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