What Is a Crew Member?

In the broadest sense of the word, "crew member" or “crewmember” is a general term used to refer to any individual who works aboard a vessel. This could include anyone from the captain to a deckhand, as long as they perform some meaningful task to contribute to the navigation or operation of the vessel.

How “crew member” is defined and its legal implications will depend on the context:

General Maritime Law  
Under general maritime law, a crew member is any person who is employed or engaged in any capacity on board a maritime vessel (cargo ship, ferry, shrimp boat, jack-up rig, and more). This includes, but is not limited to, roles such as deckhands, engineers, officers, cooks, and others who contribute to the vessel's operation or its mission. 

The Jones Act  
The term crew member is often used interchangeably with “seaman,” which has implications under the Jones Act, formally known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920. For a crew member to qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act, they must spend a significant amount of their work time (often interpreted as at least 30%) on a vessel or fleet of vessels in navigable waters and contribute to the vessel's function or mission. Those who qualify as seamen under the Jones Act are entitled to certain legal protections and benefits, especially concerning injuries sustained during their employment.

U.S. Crewmember (D) Visas  
The crewmember (D) visa is a U.S. nonimmigrant visa category designed for individuals who serve aboard vessels or aircraft that are coming to the United States. The U.S. State Department defines a crew member as someone serving in a capacity required for normal operations aboard a sea vessel or aircraft. This visa is meant for those who will be transiting through the U.S. as part of their job but will not be remaining in the country. 

The following workers require a crewmember (D) visa:

  • Captains, engineers, and deckhands on a vessel
  • Lifeguards, cooks, and waiters on a cruise ship
  • Trainees on board a training vessel

Types of Crew Members

Because a crew member may be any person who works aboard a ship and contributes to its mission, there are many types with varying duties. These include:

  • Captain/master
  • Chief mate/first mate
  • Second mate
  • Third mate
  • Deckhand
  • Able seaman
  • Boatswain (or bosun)
  • Chief engineer
  • Second engineer
  • Third engineer
  • Fourth engineer
  • Oiler
  • Wiper
  • Electrical engineer/electrician
  • Chief steward
  • Cook
  • Steward's assistant
  • Radio officer
  • Ship’s doctor
  • Pilot

Crew Members’ Rights

Under maritime law, crew members have several rights designed to ensure their safety, well-being, and fair treatment while working at sea. These include:

  • Maintenance and Cure: If a crew member becomes ill or injured while in service of a vessel, regardless of fault, they are entitled to maintenance (a daily stipend to cover basic living expenses, including food and lodging, until they reach maximum medical improvement) and cure (the payment of necessary medical expenses associated with the injury).
  • Jones Act Rights: The Jones Act offers protections specifically for seamen, including the right to sue their employer if their injuries result from the negligence of their employer or coworkers, or if the vessel is unseaworthy
  • Right to Repatriation: Under international conventions like the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), crews have the right to be repatriated at the shipowner's expense under specific circumstances, such as the end of a contract.
  • Wage Protection: Crew members are entitled to receive their wages in full and on time. Any disputes or unpaid wages can usually be addressed through legal channels.
  • Decent Working and Living Conditions: Conventions like the MLC ensure that crew members have decent working hours, rest periods, accommodations, and access to food and medical care.
  • Protection Against Abandonment: Shipowners are prohibited from abandoning their crew members in foreign ports without wages or means of repatriation.
  • Right to a Written Employment Agreement: Often referred to as a "Seafarer's Employment Agreement," this document outlines terms of employment, working conditions, wages, and other essential details for crew members.
  • Protection from Discrimination and Harassment: Crew members have the right to a workplace free from discrimination and harassment based on race, color, religion, gender, or nationality.
  • Reporting Unsafe Practices: Crew members have the right to report unsafe practices without fear of retaliation.

These rights are derived from a combination of international conventions, national laws, and longstanding maritime legal principles. It's important for crew members to be aware of their rights and for employers to uphold and respect these.

If you would like to learn more about your rights as a crew member, contact Arnold & Itkin. Your consultation is free and confidential. 

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