Employees sue Celebrity Cruises over COVID-19 response

LMAW

ABC News

A class action lawsuit filed Tuesday on behalf of over a thousand Celebrity Cruises employees alleges the company failed to protect its crew members working aboard ships amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The suit comes less than two weeks after a crew member working on the Celebrity Infinity died after being medically evacuated by the U.S. Coast Guard. The USCG confirmed the employee had coronavirus-like symptoms.

“Celebrity egregiously failed to take even the most basic steps to protect its crew members from the rampant spread of coronavirus,” Michael Winkleman, a Miami-based maritime attorney, said in an interview with ABC News.

The lawsuit claims that the cruise industry received an “early warning of how easily COVID-19 could spread on massive ocean liners” when the first cases were reported on Princess Cruises’ Diamond Princess.

From Feb. 7 to Feb. 23, the largest cluster of COVID-19 cases outside mainland China were on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The ship was placed under quarantine for more than two weeks in Yokohama, Japan.

“Despite having notice that COVID-19 was and/or likely was present aboard the vessels,” the complaint alleges the company allowed its employees to attend crew parties aboard the ships, eat in buffet settings and mandated their participation in shipboard drills.

Alexandra Nedeltcheva, 54, the plaintiff representing the class in the suit, has worked for Celebrity Cruises in the food and beverage department for the past 11 years. She joined the Celebrity Apex on March 2 — one of the 14 ships listed in the complaint.

“With all of the information around the world about COVID and how dangerous it is and how people are dying around the world, I was a little surprised that no one was taking precautions,” Nedeltcheva told ABC News. “No masks, no screenings.”

Nedeltcheva said her supervisor denied employees’ requests to wear masks until crew members from the ship were taken to the hospital.

The crew was eventually placed under quarantine on March 25, Nedeltcheva said. Less than a week later that she tested positive for COVID-19.

“We were wrongly put on the front lines to fight for our health and our well-being,” Nedeltcheva said. “The majority of the food and beverage department is sick because we were the ones that are in constant contact with all other people on board.”

Nedeltcheva said during the quarantine no one from Celebrity called to check on her well-being for 10 days.

“It wasn’t easy to be quarantined on the ship,” Nedeltcheva said. “You have no information, no help. It wasn’t easy to think on a daily basis if you’re going to be able to go home or if you are just going to die on a ship. Never in my life have I had such a long 30 days — it felt like years.”

According to the CDC, over the last two months outbreaks on three cruise ships have caused more than 800 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States among passengers and crew, including 10 deaths.

“COVID-19 on cruise ships poses a risk for rapid spread of disease, causing outbreaks in a vulnerable population, and aggressive efforts are required to contain spread,” the agency said.

The CDC recommends that everyone should defer all cruise travel worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While guests have disembarked, and all major cruise lines have temporarily suspended passenger cruises in the U.S., many employees are still stuck at sea.

Nedeltcheva has since disembarked from the Celebrity Apex and is staying at a rental apartment in Sofia, Bulgaria. She said many of her co-workers are still on board.

“I pray to God that everybody’s safe,” Nedeltcheva said. “The guests are very important, but we’re also human at the end of the day,”

On Monday, the USCG told ABC News it is monitoring 25 cruise ships anchored in U.S. waters with 18,900 crew members on board, and 26 cruise ships moored in U.S. ports with 20,900 crew members on board.

When asked for comment, Celebrity Cruises said it does not comment on pending litigation.