- Coronavirus infections have put a pause on the cruise industry, leaving thousands of cruise-ship workers stuck on ships at port or jobless at a time when there are few entertainment or hospitality jobs available.
- For some employees, living on an empty cruise ship has been a dream come true. Crew members across cruise lines have been encouraged to use guest amenities like pools and laser tag. They have also spread out into guest cabins so they could live without roommates.
- But some crew members have seen their contracts abruptly paused. About 80 performers in rehearsals on dry land for AIDA cruises were sent home without pay or benefits in March, even though many had given up other jobs and apartments to prepare for six-month cruises.
- Other cruise workers said they were exposed to the coronavirus on ships where they were led to believe that nothing was wrong, on the Norwegian Encore and Carnival’s Holland America Line ship MS Rotterdam.
- Carnival Corporation, which owns Holland America Line, said that “the company’s goal was to protect guests and crew alike.” Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings did not respond to a request for comment. Royal Caribbean Cruises declined to comment.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
On March 14, facing an onslaught of customer cancellations, the Pride of America cruise ship docked in Honolulu and let its 900 or so crew members into the island capital for a night out on the town.
The Norwegian Cruise Line-owned ship, which normally fits 2,186 gleeful vacationers, is the only cruise ship in the world that operates under the American flag. Its entire crew is American or holds a green card, and it exclusively docks at American ports, circling the Hawaiian Islands in seven-day loops. On a normal week, the ship brings in $1.3 million in revenue, making it one of the most lucrative in Norwegian’s fleet.
Within days of docking, one of the ship’s employees was diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, by a doctor on land. Crew members abandoned their shared rooms for isolated cabins normally reserved for guests. Soon, every crew member got their temperature taken before entering the mess hall for meals.
By Saturday, at least nine crew members were believed to have the virus – some on the ship and some off – and about 550 people remained stuck on the ship in quarantine. Ultimately, Pride of America aims to get its crew down to just 200 people, leaving the rest of its 700 crew members without an income, according to a crew member briefed on the matter.
Two months after the first coronavirus case was detected on a cruise ship, similar scenarios are playing out on vessels around the globe.
Thousands of cruise-ship workers have been stuck on ships with the looming threat of a coronavirus outbreak, only to leave the ship without a job or health insurance because of mass layoffs and furloughs resulting from canceled cruises, according to 16 current and recently departed cruise-ship workers. Many of these people spoke with Business Insider on the condition of anonymity for fear that they may lose their jobs or final paychecks.
In some cases, these cruise-ship workers - from the singers and dancers that perform Broadway musicals on ships to the housekeepers and chefs who look after guests - are still living in close quarters on infected ships, many involuntarily, and they are starting to lose faith that the cruise lines they've dedicated their lives to will do anything to save them.
Cruise work is ' too hard' and the pay is 'too little'
In 2019, about 233,000 people worked aboard ships run by the three big publicly traded cruise conglomerates - Norwegian, Carnival, and Royal Caribbean Cruises - according to estimates in their annual reports.
These workers come from everywhere. Carnival, which employed 92,000 of those crew members across its 104 ships, hired most of its officers from Italy, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, and Norway and most of the rest of its crew from the Philippines, Indonesia, and India.
Cruise-ship employees typically work on contracts that last anywhere from two to 11 months, in which they are fully dedicated to life at sea. Though international labor law says crew members should not work more than 72 hours in one week, many have reported working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, only to return to a windowless cabin shared with one or two other workers.
Pay varies a lot depending on the person's job, and the jobs available to a prospective employee can differ based on the country they're from. In interviews with 39 cruise workers in 2018 and 2019, Business Insider found that some employees, usually from poorer countries, reported making less than $2,000 a month while working this schedule. Others - usually Americans and Canadians - said they made $5,000 to $10,000 a month.
"It's something of a rarity for there to be an American on a ship," said Michael Winkleman, a lawyer with the maritime-focused firm Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman. "Most Americans aren't willing to do cruise-ship jobs because they're too hard and the pay is too little. It's almost unimaginable how hard these crew members work."
For the cruise industry, which is looking at months of lost revenue because of coronavirus cancellations, eliminating staff expenses can be appealing. Payroll for crew members, unsurprisingly, made up a substantial chunk of each company's shipside operating expenses in 2019: 17.4% at Carnival, 14.3% at Norwegian, and 9.9% at Royal Caribbean.
"The question for everybody in the industry is: When are the ships going to be allowed to start sailing again?" a former Carnival Corp. director told Business Insider. "If we park half of our fleet for a year and focus on filling what we can - if I were doing this, I would want to cut headcount costs by at least that number."
But eliminating crew headcount entirely is not an option. Every cruise ship in the world is competing for dock space right now, so many are opting instead to set an anchor down, often somewhere in the Caribbean or near Bermuda, and wait it out at sea until they can change geographies later in the year.
Those boats require at least a skeleton crew. On the Pride of America, still docked in Honolulu, the goal is to get to a crew of just 100 deck and engine professionals and 100 other crew members to keep food and housing running. That's just one-fifth of its normal crew, and those who remain have taken a substantial pay cut. Norwegian told employees last week that all working crew members would have their salaries temporarily cut by 20% and that hourly employees could no longer work overtime, a crew member said.
Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings did not respond to a request for comment.
In some cases, getting home is still a barrier. Depending on where the crew member is from and where the boat is docked, it might not even be feasible to get them on a plane.
"Carnival Corp. doesn't want to be paying people, but it has to get them home, and there's no flights," the former executive said.
Some stuck workers find that life is better at sea
For some employees, being stuck on a ship is better than the alternative. For many, it means wages and healthcare during a pandemic, when they likely wouldn't be able to find another job in the entertainment or hospitality industries.
On ships where passengers have fully disembarked, an empty ship might mean that crew members can eat and swim in spaces usually reserved for guests and spread out their living spaces into the luxurious customer cabins they've spent months coveting. With the coronavirus swiftly spreading across land, some crew members have said they feel safer living on a floating vessel.
The creative types have memorialized their experience in catchy TikTok videos showing off empty ballrooms and water slides. In the most famous, a young woman says into the camera, "Hey, yo, I live on an empty cruise ship, check," then does the hustle.
A senior officer on one of TUI UK's Marella Cruises ships told Business Insider that his pay had been cut in half since the crisis hit. But he now works just one hour a day, seven days a week, helping the crew clean the ship and check inventory.
"It's nice to just sit outside and do nothing," he said, floating in the Caribbean, two weeks after five people on the ship came down with the virus.
It took a few days for the ship to implement social-distancing procedures after the first COVID-19 cases were confirmed, and the measures taken weren't as extreme as those found on other ships. Passengers could still eat at a buffet, but they would be served by a crew member rather than handle the food themselves. And while passengers were encouraged to stay in their rooms, they were never required to do so.
"The safety and well being of our customers and crew is always our highest priority," Ruth Bishop, a senior press officer for TUI, said in a statement. "All Marella Cruises ships followed government advice in relation to Covid-19. All guests and crew on board were asked to adhere to social distancing and anyone who developed flu-like symptoms had to self-isolate in their cabin."
The COVID-19 cases on the ship were mild, the senior officer said, and though several other passengers showed flu-like symptoms, the disease didn't spread the way it did on ships like the Diamond Princess and the Costa Luminosa.
"I think the guests and the cruise line, frankly, did a bang-up job," he said.
After guests disembarked on March 23, employees were left on board with little indication of when they might leave, though the senior officer said the mood on the ship has been positive.
"We're kind of just sitting around in uncharted territory, seeing what's going to happen," he said.
He's not alone. In addition to the ships parked at ports with crew members on board, at least 10 were still at sea as of March 31. Carnival Corp. said that as of March 30, about 6,000 passengers had yet to get off the company's ships.
Canceled contracts mean no pay or health insurance
The 80 or so performers preparing for trips with Carnival's AIDA cruise line were not so lucky. Many had relocated to Hamburg, Germany, for six to eight weeks of rehearsals in preparation for cruises set to depart in mid-April or early May.
Though the employees had been working for weeks, AIDA told them that their rehearsal period was covered by an addendum to their six-month contracts covering their time at sea. The dancers and singers had packed up their apartments and quit their day jobs in anticipation of being at sea for more than half a year, with room and board and wages upwards of $20,000. Within 24 hours of being notified, they were on flights home to quarantine for two weeks with unsuspecting parents and friends, two of the performers said.
"AIDA's welfare was appreciated from the majority of the actors, artists and musicians," Hansjörg Kunze, a vice president of communication for AIDA, said in an email. "We received a lot of positive feedback on how we are dealing with this difficult situation, but we fully understand that some might not be happy with the solutions we could offer in these difficult times."
For Americans and Brits, their status as maritime workers has made the broken contracts uniquely difficult. As AIDA's headquarters are in Germany and its ships sail under the Italian flag, non-European employees have found that they don't qualify for unemployment benefits. In the case of the Americans, they no longer have health insurance and have had to jump through hoops to justify their layoff as a qualifying life event to get new insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
To top it off, the performers said they still had to pay rent on the apartments they rented in Germany. Once they got on the plane, AIDA stopped paying their housing stipend, two people said.
Kunze said that "AIDA has offered support here so that nobody has to deal with these costs alone."
Read more: Carnival Corporation CEO tells employees in a leaked video that there are no mass cuts coming as industry reels from coronavirus pandemic: 'We'll be in a position to survive this' even as operations stop
"Would I rather be out of half of my year's employment, or would I rather be cleaning the ship?" one employee asked over a phone call in late March. "They're getting paid their salary. They have healthcare. They have health insurance. It can't be much worse than being stuck in this house for two weeks."
Within a few days of that conversation, their counterparts, who were already on AIDA ships on March 17, were sent home with 60 days' wages or payment for the rest of their contract, whichever was shorter, the person said.
"Today, nobody knows when global tourism will be able to return to normal but we assured every one of our partners that we would be more than happy to offer new contracts on board of our ships or invite them for new rehearsal programs in Hamburg," Kunze said.
Employees feel misled about infected ships
For the crew members on infected ships, the extra pay they earn while they continue to work has turned into a life-or-death gamble.
Last week, 14 crew members tested positive for COVID-19 aboard Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, the Miami Herald reported. By Sunday, five crew members had been airlifted off that ship, as had at least one crew member on Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas. The week before, six crew members from Carnival's Costa Magica and seven from the Costa Favolosa were airlifted off the coast of Florida because they had symptoms.
Royal Caribbean declined to comment.
Norovirus is common on cruises, and every crew member is trained for "code red" sanitation sprints, in which every surface of the ship has to be disinfected to prevent further spread. These people know how to stop a virus in its tracks.
But in the case of the coronavirus, some employees said they believe they were deliberately misled by their captains and the cruise lines while being encouraged to behave in ways that put their safety at risk.
When the Norwegian Encore first docked in Miami on March 15, crew members were hopeful. Guests were quickly let off the ship, but the 1,735 or so crew members were soon told they would be required to stay on board for two weeks, before the company would fly everyone except a skeleton crew home.
"Things went on as normal onboard," said an email from one member of the crew, who said he tested positive for COVID-19 soon after leaving the ship. Crew members continued to do drills in crowded quarters and were encouraged to use the pools, hot tubs, water slides, laser-tag facilities, and race tracks normally reserved for guests.
As crew members got sick, they were moved into isolation, and the medical center assured the crew that these people had tested negative for COVID-19.
"The captain would come on the overhead speaker periodically to ensure us that there were 'no cases onboard' and that we were in the safest environment possible," the crew member wrote.
It wasn't until the week of March 24 - and a social-media campaign on behalf of the trapped cast of "Kinky Boots" - that some crew members were booked on flights back home. It was on the drive home with his parents, this crew member said, that he started to feel sick.
Perhaps the defining moment of the cruise-ship chaos transpired on March 22, when the MS Rotterdam, a Holland America ship with 611 crew members on board, departed from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, at 3 p.m. on a secret mission.
The vessel was tasked with coming to the aid of a coronavirus-stricken sister ship, the MS Zaandam. The number of sick crew members and passengers was swelling, and the Zaandam needed medical supplies and staff.
But two Rotterdam crew members said they felt that the cruise line had misled them about the nature of the task. Initially, crew members argued that Holland America characterized the rendezvous with the Zaandam as a chance to resupply the ship. Later, on March 26, it was announced that the Rotterdam would also be taking on the Zaandam's cohort of still healthy passengers. Rotterdam crew members became concerned, given that the coronavirus has an incubation period of two to 14 days.
Rotterdam crew members said tensions flared on board, with Holland America President Orlando Ashford and Capt. Rik Krombeen, the director of nautical operations, singled out because of what one crew member characterized as "misinformation and non-transparency."
One crew member spoke of a feeling that the cruise line was taking "healthy crew members from all over the world" and dropping them "in the middle of the virus."
Roger Frizzell, the chief communications officer for Carnival Corp., said that "the company's goal was to protect guests and crew alike."
The industry faces choppy waters
By the end of March, most cruise lines had announced the inevitable: Their mid-April deadlines to restart cruising were extended to mid-May. In the case of Pride of America, employees not already at sea were told they won't be needed until at least mid-June.
With millions of dollars' worth of canceled cruises, Norwegian, Carnival, and Royal Caribbean have taken drastic measures to fix their balance sheets. Norwegian moved its corporate employees to a four-day workweek and cut pay for shoreside employees by 20%. Royal Caribbean's CEO, Richard Fain, said he would forgo his salary until September, and the company announced a 25% pay cut for all executives.
Initially, Carnival, the largest of the three, told employees it had decided against immediate layoffs or pay cuts to shipside or shoreside workers. It instead opted to raise $6.25 billion through a mix of debt and equity. However, a leaked document published by Business Insider on Monday showed that crew members on some of Carnival's cruise lines could take pay cuts in the coming months.
For laid-off cruise workers, the law has little recourse. It's not much different from an American company shutting down and laying off its workforce, Winkleman said.
"We've gotten easily 100 inquiries from crew members saying, 'They're canceling our contracts, they're sending us home, is there anything we can do?' The answer is, essentially, no," Winkleman said, adding that many of the workers he speaks with come from countries with little to no unemployment benefits.
Still, Winkleman said he expected to see the coronavirus pandemic haunt the cruise industry, legally speaking, for months to come. He has two class-action lawsuits in the works, including one representing crew members who were exposed to the virus.
Meanwhile, many crew members are still in quarantine, waiting to find out whether they got sick and wondering how they would handle COVID-19 without an income or health insurance to protect them.
"My main reason for working on cruise ships all these years was stability, good money, and health insurance," one person said. "Now I have none of those."