Operation: Get Paid

Make sure the deck you’re working is stacked in your favor

By Nick Rahaim

Commercial fishing is a brutal industry. Whether in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico or the North Atlantic, sleep deprivation, harsh conditions and strained muscles are routine. Those of us dealing with the ferocity of the job are usually in it for more than just the love of the fishing life. There’s got to be a financial reward that comes with getting beat up for a living. The last thing a deckhand should have to worry about is getting their wallet beat up by captains looking to improve their own bottom line.

There is no shortage of stories of deckhands getting ripped off by captains: shares lower than agreed to, inflated expenses and manipulated costs. As a greenhorn, I got on the wrong boat for three weeks, got zapped by faulty wiring numerous times, and never got paid — that is, until I showed up to the skipper’s house nearly a year later, more than 1,000 miles away, and demanded my pay. He gave me 500 bucks and told me if I wanted more I’d have to take him to court. There also are many cases of deckhands making spurious claims against skippers for both pay and injury.

While we hear these stories of skippers and deckhands getting the better of each other, one thing is clear: Too few have a solid grasp of what rights deckhands on commercial fishing vessels have under federal law.

Legally, deckhands are in a unique position. Most fishing crew receive a share of the catch as opposed to standard wage or salary. A share in no way implies partnership. This is an important distinction when it comes to boat owners charging crew for capital expenditures. Most deckhands are also independent contractors for tax purposes, and for other purposes they are employees. As employees, departments of labor in certain states will help deckhands collect outstanding wages, and to do so, these states (like Alaska) consider deckhands to be employees.

The U.S. judicial system has long recognized the unique position of seamen, including deckhands. A court ruling in favor of an ill deckhand, Joncich v. Vitco (1955), paraphrased a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1897, saying the “employment contract of the seaman is treated as an exceptional one, involving to a certain extent the surrender of his personal liberty during the life of the contract.” Translation: A deckhand has little recourse if they feel they were forced to work too much or not given enough leave. While under contract, a captain is within his rights to dictate nearly every aspect of a deckhand’s life.

There is no more important way for captains and deckhands to protect themselves than a written contract signed by both parties. After both parties read, agree to and sign a contract, there should be no question about pay, duration of employment, expenses and a deckhand’s responsibilities. Unfortunately, if and when these contracts are signed, these terms aren’t always clear.

Over the years, I have signed good, bad and mediocre crew contracts, and at times I have gone without signing contracts at all. Working without a contract could actually be more advantageous than signing a bad one.

“Unscrupulous vessel owners get very creative when trying to stiff deckhands on their wages. No deckhand should sign a contract when the space for the crew share percentage is blank, to be filled in later,” says John Merriam a private practice maritime lawyer based out of Fishermen’s Terminal in Seattle. “It is important that deductions from crew shares — such as food, fuel and bait — be specifically stated, as well as the exact method for calculating the value of the catch, so that deckhands don’t get pencil whipped on their settlement sheets by the owner’s bookkeeper.”

Deckhands on share are required to have a written contract. If they don’t, they are entitled to make claim of the highest wage paid …

nf sept14 cvrRead the full article in our September issue >>

Want to read more about crew shares? Click here >>

Have you listened to this article via the audio player above?

If so, send us your feedback around what we can do to improve this feature or further develop it. If not, check it out and let us know what you think via email or on social media.

A collection of stories from guest authors.

Join the Conversation