Can the Jones Act Be Suspended During COVID-19?
In 2017, the Jones Act received criticism for how it affected the people of Puerto Rico. After the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria, the people of Puerto Rico had no power, no infrastructure, destroyed homes, and ruined agriculture. Critics of the Jones Act pointed out that the Jones Act wasn’t being helpful for recovery efforts for Puerto Rico. Specifically, they said that the law made it difficult and expensive to send goods from the mainland United States to Puerto Rico.
Critics aren’t wrong—the Jones Act does make some shipping more expensive because it requires goods transported from one American port to another to be on an American-built, American-owned, and American-operated vessel. Under pressure, the Trump administration waived the Jones Act temporarily for vessels delivering relief to Puerto Rico. This wasn’t the first time such an exemption was made. The Bush administration made one after Hurricane Katrina. The Obama administration issued a limited waiver after Hurricane Sandy, and the Trump administration also issued a waiver after Hurricane Harvey.
Economic Relief Is Only One Aspect of Waiving the Jones Act
When it was created, the Jones Act, also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, was an important piece of legislation needed to protect the U.S. maritime industry. While it protects an American maritime industry that’s small when compared to other nations, it also does one more important thing: protect maritime workers. It does this by making it possible for injured seamen or the families of deceased ones to pursue employers for negligence.
Before the Jones Act, employers only had to pay workers for maintenance and cure. In other words, they paid for a worker’s medical treatment and lodging until they recovered as much as they could. If a worker couldn’t work to earn wages for the rest of their life, they had no way of holding their negligent employer accountable for this.
While waving the Jones Act could serve as much-needed economic relief during natural disasters, it could also place workers at risk if the wrong parts of it are temporarily waived.
The Jones Act & COVID-19
Currently, the offshore oil industry is taking a beating. First, a hostile global market has forced the price of oil to drop. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult for companies to send workers to rigs because of outbreaks in their confined spaces. Some industry groups are concerned that coronavirus cases among offshore workers are being underreported after the US Coast Guard stopped providing numbers about them. To complicate the matter, the federal government allowed companies to respond to the virus using their preferred methods.
One form of economic relief that offshore oil and gas companies have suggested is a Jones Act waiver to decrease the cost of shipping their goods back to shore. Yet, with the uncertainty shrouding how many offshore workers have contracted COVID-19, waiving of the Jones Act could serve as an economic relief in an unintended way.
If workers get sick because of their employer’s failure to adequately respond to the virus outbreak, the lack of a Jones Act could prevent them from seeking the compensation and accountability that they need and deserve. So, if oil companies wish to have the Jones Act waived, lawmakers and authorities should be vigilant in making sure they limit what parts of the law they suspend—the health and livelihood of offshore workers could depend on it.