Thousands of crew members remain stranded on cruise ships around the world.
Most have been stuck on the ships for well over a month, with no clear path home.
Workers onboard Norwegian Cruise Lines and Carnival Cruise Lines ships spoke to Business Insider about their frustration with their circumstances, their employers, and the United States government.
"This is not a private-public sector issue, this is an international relations tragedy," one individual who managed to disembark a Carnival ship in March told Business Insider.
Are you a cruise-ship crewmember or a cruise-line employee? Email acain@businessinsider.
For four hours, hundreds of Norwegian Cruise Lines crew members waited on the Tampa Harbour pier, just minutes away from the ships set to take them home after weeks stuck onboard.
Then they were told they had disembarked their ships for nothing.
Norwegian had planned to dock its MS Norwegian Star and MS Norwegian Dawn in the Florida port for a massive crew transfer on April 21. All European employees and contractors were to report to the Star, which was due to sail for Europe. All other nationalities would board the Dawn. The consolidation was an effort to expedite the repatriation of long-stranded crew members.
One of the individuals participating in the abruptly canceled transfer described the scene to Business Insider. Around 500 people were set to partake in the transfer, which began at 7 a.m. They had donned gloves and masks, packed their luggage, handed off their cabin keeps, and said goodbye to the friends and colleagues they'd been stuck with for weeks. Border Patrol officers waited at the scene on standby, as did private buses set to shuttle Star crew to the Dawn, and vice versa. The ships were situated about five minutes apart in the port.
But nothing happened as the morning dragged on. The disembarked crew ended up stuck in limbo for hours, standing in line or sitting on their bags. Around 11 a.m., the announcement came in. Representatives of Norwegian's human resources department told employees that the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had halted the transfer.
The Norwegian employees and contractors were told to turn around and re-board their respective vessels.
The botched transfer between the Sun and the Star reflects more than just a disappointing setback for hundreds of employees at one major cruise line. It's a scene indicative of the plight of crew members stuck onboard ships during the coronavirus pandemic. Thousands of crew members remain on board ships at port and at sea around the world, unable to return home.
Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, MSC Cruises, and the CDC did not respond to Business Insider's request for comment.
Business Insider has spoken with seven Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival Cruise Line, and MSC Cruises crew members, most of whom remain trapped on their respective vessels. They addressed the fear, uncertainty, and frustration they have undergone as they continue to wait for the journey home.
Two people onboard Norwegian Cruise ships blamed the CDC and US authorities for failing to help crew members on "healthy ships" — with no cases of COVID-19 or COVID-19-like symptoms onboard – return home. And it's a sentiment echoed by individuals working for other cruise lines.
One Carnival crew member stuck onboard a ship said that the cruise line's repatriation plans have been repeatedly blocked by federal and state governments in the US. They said that Carnival's plan to repatriate crew members by nationality is "risky and unacceptable."
Carnival Cruise Lines recently planned to dispatch ships docked off North America to return crew to "ports in Asia, Europe, and Latin America," including the Asia-bound MS Carnival Panorama.
Meanwhile, Norwegian Cruise Lines arranged for its ships, including the Norwegian Epic, the Norwegian Bliss, the Norwegian Encore, and the Norwegian Star, to reconvene on its company-owned private island in the Bahamas, Great Stirrup Cay. An individual who had previously sailed on the Star said that they were transferred to the Epic, which now has roughly 2,300 onboard.
'An international relations tragedy'
As crew members continue to face a lack of options when it comes to disembarking and returning home, many now also face anxieties around their careers and their health.
Many crew members onboard face being trapped without a means to earn a salary after their cruise line contracts expire.
One Norwegian crew member onboard the Epic told Business Insider that the ship's management told employees to report to the ship's Taste restaurant. There, the employees were served with certificates of service, highlighting that their contracts had come to an end. Most stranded crew will not accrue wages despite being still stranded on board, aside from those performing essential tasks.
MSC Cruises has enacted a similar policy for many of its stranded crew. For MSC Cruises crew members not earning a salary while stuck on vessels, the cruise line has promised that they will receive either a job offer six months after MSC Cruises' fleet is back online. If MSC is unable to offer them another job at that time, a leaked memo said that these crew members are entitled to an amount worth two months' base pay.
In addition to pay, safety also remains a concern for many stranded crew. With passengers long since having departed the ships, outbreaks among crew members have attracted considerably less media scrutiny. The MS Queen Victoria, a Cunard Line ship, has experienced a COVID-19 outbreak, forcing crew to remain isolated in their cabins onboard.
Onboard the Norwegian Epic and the Norwegian Star, there have been no rumors about COVID-19 symptoms presenting in crew members aboard. Business Insider has reviewed a number of photos snapped onboard the Norwegian Epic, showing crew gathered in restaurants or on deck catching some sunlight. The photos do not depict crowded scenes, per se, but they highlight that crew members are not self-isolating.
But it is a different story on the Norwegian Gem. Emails leaked to Business Insider reveal that two crew members have died on the ship in April. One passed away from "cardio-respiratory arrest," and the other died of pneumonia.
'This is not the Navy'
One person who previously worked aboard a Carnival vessel told Business Insider that they commended "our entire leadership teams for their resolve" in the push to get employees home. The individual was able to disembark their ship in March after suspending their contract.
"It's heartbreaking knowing that our shipboard officers, staff, and crew remain vigilant and responsive to the safety of everyone aboard our vessels yet the biggest 'iceberg' our company has had to navigate is the US Federal Government and CDC mandates," they told Business Insider. "This is not a private-public sector issue, this is an international relations tragedy."
Holland America line ambassador Miles Schoedler, who desembarked before the brunt of the pandemic, said that it is also a problem that entertainers, culinary employees, hotel workers, and other non-essential employees are stuck onboard along with the individuals needed to fulfill the required "minimum manning" on the ship. He said they "are at risk of exposure given the relatively enclosed environment aboard."
"They are not military personnel, this is not the Navy," said Schoedler, who has close friends still aboard other ships. "They do not swear an oath of alliance to any flag or branch of service, and they certainly don't receive the same protections and privileges of our armed forces and veterans. They are global citizens being turned away from the self-proclaimed 'greatest country in the world.'"
A Carnival cruise director told Business Insider that they hoped that their employer would "embrace our role as a powerful force for reunion within our global family."
"This is bigger than us," they told Business Insider. "We have a duty and responsibility to set the standard for how to treat members of our international community and we must not continue to allow for this tragedy to persist."
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