Rescuing Unpaid Wages

Rescuing Unpaid Wages

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August 14, 2023

All jobs, on land or at sea, can lead to wage disputes where an employee didn’t get paid  at all, didn’t get paid enough, or didn’t get paid on time. If you’re a maritime worker with a  potential wage dispute, whether a fisherman, merchant marine, deckhand, or other seaman, your  rights differ from those of land-based workers. First and foremost, a maritime worker has a  maritime lien on a vessel for unpaid wages that attaches automatically when wages are not paid.  Although, depending on what type of maritime worker you are, will determine what laws govern  and how you can recover your hard-earned wages from your employer.  

Maritime Workers-Non Fisherman  

If you are a seaman on an American vessel other than a fishing boat, you are entitled to  be paid at least federal minimum wage under the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. § 206.  The seamen designation applies to nearly every person employed onboard a vessel sailing in  navigable waters, who in some way assists in the vessel’s navigation, operation, or welfare.  Merchant mariners, deckhands, engineers, cooks, stewards, and anyone else who contributes a  role in the vessel’s operations are all considered seamen.  

In terms of wage disputes for seamen, the law is more complex, but the payoff can be  greater. There are many variations on the wage laws for seamen, and which law governs your  case can depend on the type of vessel you worked on, the vessel’s voyage, if a signed contract  exists to whether you are a union member. The laws differ for coastwise voyages that only  involve U.S. ports on the same coast, or for foreign or intercoastal voyages that travel between  the U.S. and another country, or between a U.S. Atlantic port and Pacific port. It is important to  share the facts of your case with a knowledgeable maritime attorney who can help you identify  what you are entitled to, based on these specifics.  

Seamen on either type of voyage may be entitled to collect “penalty wages” if the  employer improperly withholds payment after the trip ends. On foreign and intercoastal voyages,  seamen must be paid within 4 days of being discharged or within 1 day after the cargo is  discharged, or else the employer must pay two days’ worth of wages for each day payment is  delayed. 46 U.S.C. § 10313. On coastwise voyages, seamen must be paid within 2 days of being  discharged from the trip, or else the employer faces that same penalty. 46 U.S.C. § 10504. These  laws mean that even short delays in paying the wages can result in a big paycheck for the cash strapped seaman. There are several exclusions written into these wage laws, so it important that  you consult with a knowledgeable maritime attorney to see if it’s something that may apply to  your case.  

If you are a seaman and think you might have a wage dispute against your employer,  don’t wait to act. You may have grounds to sue the boat directly (called in rem) or your  employer for unpaid wages, and you have the right to do so as soon as the voyage ends. Your  case might still be valid, even if you signed a release or settlement of wage claims provided by  your employer. Because of the volume of complex laws in this area, and most of them have  exceptions, it is always worth consulting with a maritime attorney before considering your  unpaid wages a sunk cost. 


If you have not been paid your earned wages for a completed fishing trip, you have  options, depending on the circumstances. Boat owners know that wage laws are complex, and  that you might not know what you’re entitled to under the law. Sometimes all it takes is a  forceful letter from a knowledgeable maritime attorney for the boat owner to know they can’t  take advantage of that and must pay up.  

If need be, your attorney can then proceed and sue the boat directly (called in rem) under  46 U.S.C. § 10602. Under this law, the vessel is seized, causing a logistical and financial  headache for your employer and providing another incentive for them to pay up quickly. Even  so, this option could be less desirable depending on the amount of wages you’re owed, because it  is a costly route that could leave you with little in your pocket after expenses and attorney fees  are paid. Also, beware that this action must be brought within six months of the sale of the fish,  so don’t wait to consult an attorney if you think you are owed unpaid wages from a recent trip.  

Another path may land you more than your agreed share of the catch. Congress has  passed a law, 46 U.S.C. § 10601, that requires the boat owner and fisherman to sign fishing  articles (most likely called a fishing agreement or crew agreement) before every trip. The  agreement must contain certain information, including the agreed upon share of the catch and the  duration of the agreement. If the articles don’t conform to the requirements of the law, or if you  never signed articles, 46 U.S.C. § 11107 allows a fisherman to collect his agreed upon wages or  the highest wages paid to a similar fisherman at the same port, whichever is higher. This means  that you can recover wages equal to the highest wage earned by a fisherman with the same rank  (deckhand, mate, cook, etc.) as you on any boat in the same port as your boat. This is your best  bet at getting the boat owner to open his wallet and for you to walk away with the wages you are  due and possibly more.  

 If you are a fisherman with a wage dispute, it’s best to start by consulting a maritime  attorney as soon as you can, so that they can steer you in the right direction based on your unique  circumstances.  

Don’t let your fair wages float away. If you have any questions, Latti & Anderson has  over a 50-year tradition of helping merchant mariners, fishermen, and crew members on all types  of vessels in wage disputes, personal injury cases, and more.

Contact us:, 800-392-6072 or text 617-797-2203 to learn more about the ways the  dedicated attorneys at Latti & Anderson can assist you. 

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