Fifth Circuit Addresses Definition of Seaman Under the Fair Labor Standards Act

3338710223_a1ba090d11_zUnder the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA), for every hour that an employee works beyond 40 hours in a seven day work week, that employee must be paid overtime, that is, one and a half times his normal hourly rate. However, if the employee meets the statutory definition of a “seaman,” then he is not entitled to overtime pay.

29 C.F.R. § 783.32 lays out the criteria for being a seaman: An employee will ordinarily be regarded as a seaman, (1) If the employee is a master or subject to the authority of a master (2) aboard a vessel (3) performing service primarily as an aid to the operation of the vessel as a means of transportation, and (4) does not perform a substantial amount of different work.

In Coffin v. Blessey Marine Services, Inc., No. 12-20144 (5th Cir. 11/13/14), the Fifth Circuit addressed whether or not vessel-based tankermen were ‘seamen’ under the statute.

The dispute in Blessey arose when the plaintiffs – vessel-based tankermen – sought to collect overtime pay from their employer under the FLSA. The seamen-non-seamen distinction was crucial because the plaintiffs – working an average 84 hours in a seven day period – would not be entitled to recover if they fell within the seamen exclusion under the FLSA.

Blessey is a company that transports liquid cargo by vessels throughout inland and coastal waterways. The plaintiffs in Blessey worked as tankermen as part of a crew aboard a “tow-unit.” The tow-unit consists of one towboat and two tank barges that are connected through a system of cables. Each member of a tow-unit crew has specific responsibilities. A “wheelman,” (captain), and a deckhand are customarily recognized as seamen. A tankerman’s status as a seaman is less clear.

Tankermen’s duties include many of the same duties that deckhands perform. Some of these duties include: cleaning, handling lines, changing engine filters, tying off to docks, painting, troubleshooting engine problems and handling running lights. As deckhand duties, these tasks are recognized as seamen work. In addition to these traditional seamen tasks, tankermen are responsible for loading and unloading the tank barge’s liquid cargo. Some of these tasks include: oiling grease-fittings on barges, cleaning oil spots on barges, performing barge readiness inspections, and making sure all hatches and dogs are tightly secured.

Plaintiffs argued that the tasks exclusively required for tankermen – loading and unloading – determined their status as non-seamen under the statute. Plaintiffs principally relied on Owens v. SeaRiver Maritime, Inc. 272 F.3d 698 (5th Cir. 2001). In Owens, the court held that loading and unloading duties while part of a “land-based Strike Team,” did not meet the statutory seaman definition. In this case, plaintiffs argued that Owens stood for the principle that loading and unloading a vessel is always non-seaman work.

The court disagreed. First, the plaintiff in Owens only sought overtime for his employment as part of the land-based Strike Team, not as a tankerman. Second, the language in Owens did not foreclose the possibility that any employee who performed loading or unloading operations was categorically a non-seaman. Owens acknowledged that performing these operations was not dispositive of status. Instead, the general character of the work is determinative.

Considering the seamen factors in 29 C.F.R. § 783.32, the parties agreed that the plaintiffs were under the authority of a master and that they were members of a crew of a vessel. The parties disagreed as to whether or not the plaintiff’s performed service in operating the vessel for transportation.

The court acknowledged many situations in which loading and unloading operations were merely incidental to the vessel’s operation, and such employees were not seamen under the statute. For example, employees who only loaded and unloaded the vessel at the beginning and end of a voyage and had little other seamen-related duties would not be seamen.

In this case, the court found that the tankermans’ duties were intertwined with the safe operation of the vessels themselves. Namely, safe loading and unloading affects a tank-barge’s seaworthiness and navigational integrity. Further, the plaintiffs’ conceded that their regular duties such as keeping watch and making sure the barge is level were supposed to ensure a safe operation. Finding that the loading and unloading duties in this case could not be separated from the traditional seamen duties, the court did not have to address the question of ‘substantial different work.’

Thus, the court reversed the district court and held that in this case the vessel-based tankermen were in fact seamen under the FLSA.

Excellent image courtesy of Flickr user greeblie.