Liftboat workers win appeal of overtime case

The Fifth Circuit has ruled in favor of a proposed collective class of liftboat workers in their overtime case.  A former worker filed suit against All Coast, LLC, alleging that he was denied overtime pay in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.  The suit was filed as a collective action on behalf of other similarly-situated All Coast mates, deckhands, ordinary seamen, and able-bodied seamen, who all claimed their job titles hid their true task: crane operator.  All Coast did not pay these workers overtime because it classified them as exempt from overtime pay under the FLSA as seamen.  The plaintiffs claimed their work servicing offshore oil and gas wells consisted of “the types of things that anyone engaged in oil and gas exploration does regardless of whether drilling onshore or offshore.” 

The FLSA exempts from overtime “any employee employed as a seaman.” 29 U.S.C. § 213(b)(6). Although the FLSA does not define “seaman,” the Fifth Circuit has held that the exemption applies only when an employee performs nautical duties:

Since the Act does not define the word seaman, it must be taken in its ordinary meaning. . . . [T]he words of the exemption are: “Employees employed as seamen.” The italicized words mean something; they are not mere tautology. They warn us to look to what the employees do, and not to rest on a mere matter of a name, or the place of their work. The entire Act is pervaded by the idea that what each employee actually does determines its application to him.

Walling v. W.D. Haden Co., 153 F.2d 196, 199 (5th Cir. 1946).

Other cases have found an employee is a seaman if: “(1) the employee is subject to the authority, direction, and control of the master; and (2) the employee’s service is primarily offered to aid the vessel as a means of transportation, provided that the employee does not perform a substantial amount of different work.” In the All Coast case, the parties did not dispute the first part of the test – there was no doubt that the employees all ate, slept, and worked aboard the vessels and were subject to a captain’s authority. The dispute revolves around the second prong, particularly whether using a crane aids in a liftboat’s operation as a means of transportation. The crew member plaintiffs testified they spent no less than 80 percent of their time in the jacked-up, stationary position. Indeed, for some jobs or “hitches,” the boats were jacked up 100 percent of the time. And regardless the duration of the hitch, they never used the cranes when the boats were underway. All told, the district court found that the plaintiffs “spent between 25% and 90% of their day operating the crane.” The Fifth Circuit found that loading and unloading cargo did not qualify as seaman’s work.  As such, the appeals court reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings.  

About the author: Josh Borsellino is a Texas attorney that represents workers on unpaid overtime claims.  If you have been denied overtime pay within the past three years, call Josh at 817.908.9861 or email him here today for a free evaluation of your overtime claims.  

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