For nearly five months, thousands of civilian mariners assigned to the Navy’s fleet of U.S. Military Sealift Command ships have been living under what are believed to be some of the strictest COVID-19 restrictions in the military. And those restrictions were dropped on them with almost no notice, according to their advocates.
Under the “Gangways Up” order issued by MSC March 21, the mariners — or CIVMARs — have been forced to live on their ships, unable to go home when pierside and sometimes unable to obtain basic hygiene and comfort supplies, according to union officials representing the workers.
Such restrictions — aimed at keeping the crews free of coronavirus infection — are pushing the crews to their breaking point, three unions representing the workers warned in a July 29 letter to Rear Adm. Michael Wettlaufer, MSC commander.
The letter, posted to the Seafarers International Union’s website, notes “increasingly grave concerns regarding the mental health and well-being of MSC’s CIVMARs” as a result of the order.
“There is growing anger, frustration and despair throughout the fleet,” the letter states. “People have a breaking point and many of these crewmembers are nearing it.”
The letter was also signed by leaders of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association and the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots.
It alludes to the July 22 suicide of Third Officer Jonathon Morris aboard the deployed dry cargo ship Amelia Earhart.
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While not explicitly tying Morris’ death to the order, the unions wrote that the “Gangways Up” restriction “may have, in some part, contributed to this unnecessary and senseless act.”
MSC officials have declined to comment further on Morris’ death, citing an ongoing Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigation.
Morris’ father, Jeffrey Morris, told Navy Times Thursday he was “sure Jon was equally stressed” as other CIVMARs but that he would “not speculate on why Jon took his own life.”
“We are genuinely worried that if restrictions are not eased, the likelihood of shipboard emotional instability will increase,” the unions’ letter states. “Further, the stress-related fatigue caused by the ‘Gangways Up’ restrictions could lead to safety and mission degradation and operational mishaps.”
“The current situation is taking a terrible toll on the families of these mariners as well,” the letter continues. “The CIVMARs feel unsupported and abandoned.”
It ends with the unions asking Wettlaufer to reconsider the order “and adopt a more appropriate and reasonable leave and liberty policy.”
An ‘effective’ policy
MSC spokesman Tom Van Leunen defended the policy in an email to Navy Times, stating that “it has proven effective in protecting against COVID-19” and preserved “mission capability.”
The order affects about 3,900 CIVMARs and 1,500 contract mariners, he said.
MSC ships resupply other vessels at sea and are supposed to serve as vital surge capability should conventional war break out, ferrying troops and materiel to the fight.
“This relatively small number of mariners are essential to national security,” Van Leunen said.
While Van Leunen confirmed that MSC received the unions’ letter, he declined further comment “as the unions have filed grievances over the policy and taken the matter to arbitration.”
Randall Rockwood, a retired CIVMAR and vice president of the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots union that cosigned the letter sent to MSC, questioned the efficacy and fairness of the order.
Active-duty sailors and contractors come and go from some pierside ships each day, he said, even as the CIVMARs are forced to remain onboard.
“The amount of holes in the ‘bubbles’ the CIVMARs are supposed to be in for their own safety are too numerous to count,” Rockwood said.
“The CIVMARs are being treated like second-class citizens, worse than convicts,” he added. “The convicts are being let out of jail.”
Rockwood also said the order went into effect “with next to zero foresight.”
Relating what he had heard from union members, Rockwood said some CIVMARs received so little notice that their cars were left parked at the pier because they showed up for work the day the order went into effect and were unable to leave again.
“It was as close to instantaneous as you can describe,” Rockwood said. “One minute they’re coming and going, the next it’s no one can go ashore.”
For the first few months, CIVMARs on pierside ships were not allowed to go to the Navy Exchange for basic supplies, and their colleagues had to toss supplies aboard from the pier, Rockwood said.
“They would literally throw the required products onto the ship and receive money via Venmo or a weighted packet,” he said. “It was so archaic and thoughtless.”
In recent weeks, CIVMARs have been allowed to get off the ship for supply runs to the base NEX, but morale is “terrible” among the crews, Rockwood said.
Some crew members have been stuck on the ship up to four months beyond their contracted assignment, he said.
Rockwood blamed Wettlaufer, the MSC commander, for the ordeal the mariners are enduring.
“He continues to treat them as if their interests, well-being, families and loved ones are irrelevant,” he said.
A complaint filed to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission late last month on behalf of one ship captain alleges that MSC acted unfairly and negligently by forcing CIVMARs to remain on their ships while failing to provide adequate protective equipment for the crews.
More than 40 CIVMARs have since been added to the complaint.
Darrin Gibbons, a Virginia attorney who filed the EEOC complaint, said he is seeking class-action status to bring in more CIVMARs.
“The Navy’s actions are tantamount to false arrest and false imprisonment of its own employees,” the complaint alleges.
The complaint seeks an end to the order and compensation owed to the crews, he said.
While the Navy has allowed active-duty sailors, civilians and contractors “to move freely between work and home while observing COVID-19 protections,” civilian mariners haven been subject to “draconian measures … due to a perception that CIVMARs are at risk due to their age,” the complaint states.
The only public explanation for the order was found in a May 7 letter from MSC leadership to Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, according to the EEOC complaint.
In a copy of the letter enclosed in the EECO complaint, MSC Executive Director Steven Cade writes that the 5,400-person CIVMAR force is “older on average” than their active-duty peers, “making them potentially more vulnerable to effects of the COVID-19 virus.”
“Maintaining physical distance from others who might be carrying the virus and restricting close personal contacts off the ships is vital and necessary to protect MSC’s Mariners and embarked personnel from virus exposure,” Cade wrote.
Exceptions to the policy are granted “on a limited, case-by-case basis,” he wrote, including for medical reasons, to obtain basic health and comfort items or for travel to essential training.
“We understand the strain this puts on our mariners and families,” Cade wrote in the letter, which was sent in response to a complaint from one of Cantwell’s constituents, a mariner.
The senator’s office did not respond to a Navy Times request for comment.
Cade wrote that the policy had proven effective because only two of 166 MSC ships reported positive COVID-19 tests among its CIVMARs.
“We are operating in unprecedented times and countering COVID-19 is critical to ensuring the health and safety of our CIVMARs,” he wrote.
Twenty-four CIVMARs assigned to the fleet replenishment oiler Leroy Grumman tested positive for COVID-19 in April while the ship was undergoing maintenance in Boston, Van Leunen said.
One mariner, Joseph Bondoc, passed away “of complications from COVID-19” at a Massachusetts hospital on May 21, Van Leunen said.
The ship’s crew was living in a hotel at the time of the outbreak and was not subject to the “Gangways Up” order because the ship was not inhabitable, he said.
A crew member aboard the hospital ship Comfort also tested positive for COVID-19 this spring.
About Geoff Ziezulewicz
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.