Cruise industry workers struggling after a year since sailings stopped

On the verge of tears, Richard Robberts shared his story of having worked as a cruise line chef for almost 13 years before being laid off in March, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"I was the sole breadwinner of the household and now it is embarrassing for me, for any man that takes care of the household and you can’t provide anymore. It breaks you," he said. "They sent out an email fleetwide telling us that all contracts have been stopped and that they will pay us one month more and that after that, no more."

At one point, Robberts said the cruise ship became a free-for-all for those onboard -- a lack of food, supplies, but most of all, patience.  He said they were stuck on the ship, working with no contracts.

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Robberts has been out of work for almost a year now, unable to pay his bills.

"At the end of the day, I am busy losing everything I own because there is no income. We will probably be evicted by the end of this month because I can’t afford the rent anymore," he said.

Since March of 2020, cruises have been canceled due to the pandemic. A November report from the Cruise Lines International Association says over 164,000 people have lost jobs since the shutdown of the industry.

Robberts said he may never go back to cruising.
"I just thought if something did happen to me. If I did die from COVID or something else, what would they have said to my family? What would they have done? Would it be another email saying their condolences? A few dollars and that is it?
Melanie Canete also worked for the cruise industry as a bar server for 16 years, then was suddenly laid off from work.

"In that moment, it was like nothing for us. We never expected it seriously. We thought it would be a short time, maybe two months. We never expected it to be a year already," Canete said. 

Now, she’s back in the Philippines, running a grocery store from her home to make ends meet.

"My house, I turned it to be a business location because we need to survive," Canete said. 

Maritime attorney Michael Winkleman represents hundreds of clients like Melanie and Richard. He says his cases cover the spectrum. He says there are more than a dozen death cases related to COVID from both passengers and crew members, people trapped on ships for months at a time and lawsuits filed for cruise lines that could not pay their employees.

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"Clearly coronavirus has been catastrophic to the cruise industry as a whole. That has clearly trickled down to so many of my clients who are the crew members and really in a lot of ways, they are the most vulnerable because invariably crew members on the cruise ships come from third-world countries. India, Indonesia, the Philippines, where they have so little economic opportunity at home. For them, working on these cruise ships is the lifeline to provide for their families back home," Winkleman said.

And yet, even through months of unemployment, people like Melanie still hold out hope to get back to their old life.

"I am really waiting to get normal. I am waiting for my company to ask me to come back again. Actually, we are getting all our documents back again, so if the company will ask us to go back, we are ready," she said.


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