Due to the ever-changing nature of the maritime industry and the number of different ways in which workers’ rights have been upheld over the years, the Jones Act has a long history of what’s known as “interpretive rulings”.
Interpretive rulings, generally defined as “a rule issued by an administrative agency that only clarifies or explains existing laws or regulations”, are a common sight in many cases involving older laws such as the Jones Act. Thanks to the number of ways the Act has been interpreted over the years by maritime attorneys during court proceedings in response to the ever-changing circumstances and needs of the American marine industry, it’s no surprise to see these interpretive rulings carrying major weight in cases for years after the original ruling.
Over the past 40 years, one of the most common subjects of interpretive rulings in the Jones Act is the use of non-Jones Act vessels to transport “needed materials” to offshore construction sites, primarily to oil rigs and gas drilling installations. However, a series of proposed changes to the Jones Act may change this.
Other than protecting injured workers, the primary goal of the Jones Act is to require that any material being shipped between ports in the United States be shipped via qualified vessel, meaning one manufactured within the United States, flying the US flag, and being crewed by US citizens. Interpretive rulings in the past, however, had exempted offshore construction sites from this requirement due to concerns of time and cost.
In recent months, the US Department of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has proposed a change to the Jones Act that would cause offshore construction requirements to fall under the Jones Act as well. CBP is specifically proposing to modify a 1976 ruling regarding the operations of an offshore construction vessel, as well as its own internal views of what specifically constitutes “vessel equipment” (any equipment needed for offshore construction that has typically fallen exempt from the Jones Act).
The fallout from all this is, primarily, that Jones Act vessels would now be required in the transportation of goods and needed equipment to offshore construction sites and vessels as opposed to the non-Jones Act/non-United States vessels that are typically employed in this sort of work and transport.
So what does this mean? A few things, and most of them positive for American maritime workers. Part of the original intent behind the Jones Act was to help maintain maritime employment and income by ensuring that vessels would always need to be manufactured in America and crewed by American citizens to prevent being undercut by cheaper foreign labor. These new requirements for transporting vessel equipment will go a long way to helping make sure American manufacturing workers and ship crews stay employed by increasing the number of Jones Act-compliant vessels on the water.
Secondly, the Jones Act also means that any workers onboard those vessels are properly protected in the event of accident or injury. Offshore construction work can be one of the most dangerous jobs on the water, even if you’re just transporting needed materials between vessels, and a Jones Act lawyer will help you fight for your rights in the event of an accident.
The decision to change these requirements is set to be made sometime within April, and the effect it will have on the maritime industry remains to be seen – but it has the potential to have some big ramifications for domestic construction shipping.