Widening Gyre: The Seaman’s Expanding Right to Unearned Wages

Bryan J. Kitz | Comment

Seafarers who become ill or injured during their service of a vessel have long been entitled to maintenance and cure. This ancient remedy, however, does not obligate employers to provide seamen with only maintenance and cure. Ill or injured seafarers are also entitled to unearned wages, which have developed into a fundamental component of the maintenance and cure remedy.

Traditionally, a seafarer’s right to unearned wages has been limited to the base pay stipulated in the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between his union and his employer or in the shipping articles. However, a series of recent decisions has begun to expand the seaman’s unearned wages entitlement to include various forms of non-base-pay compensation. This line of jurisprudence has created considerable uncertainty about the forms of non-base-pay compensation, if any, that employers are obligated to provide for ill or injured seafarers and the standard that courts apply to seamen’s claims for unearned wages. Further, courts have improperly expanded the unearned wages component of maintenance and cure to include speculative, non-base-pay compensation that employers were not required to pay and seamen were not guaranteed to earn.