Medical Woes Sink Cruise Careers


December 16, 2005

COCOA BEACH – Jesus Banegas, stranded in Brevard County, wonders where his next meal will come from.

Carnival Cruise Lines paid for the cleaner from Honduras to see a doctor for a herniated disk. They paid for his lodging onshore. But they stopped paying him a salary.

“What is my family going to eat?” the 46-year-old asks, showing X-rays of his back injury. “When I hurt myself, I went to the doctor on the ship. But all they do is give you pills, they give you pills for everything. They are trying to tell me how it feels.”

He’s hurt, but wants his job back: “There is no opportunity in my country.”

Banegas’ case reveals the downside risk to hours of hard work on cruise ships and exposes the differences between American and foreign workers at Port Canaveral. Cruise lines are exempt from U.S. labor laws. Even so, many cruise workers do not realize they are covered by the Jones Act. This affords injured seamen the right to seek damages in court.

Carnival, which employs 33,000 workers, acknowledges the hard work and hours.

“Because cruise ships operate on a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week basis, the workweek of a shipboard employee is typically longer than the average employee on land,” says company spokesman Vance Gulliksen. “However, many shipboard employees earn much more than they could in their home countries.”

Attorney Tonya Meister specializes in cruise ship complaints and lawsuits. She throws her hands in the air when discussing some of the complaints that have crossed her desk. She recently left the Brevard County firm of Morgan & Barbary to work in Miami for one of the leading maritime firms in the country, Lipcon, Marguilies & Alsina, where she handles boating accidents and seaman injuries.

She mentions one case, a man who was told to stop faking pain when his appendix burst.

“He nearly died aboard the ship,” Meister says. “Then they believed him.”

That man, Trajce Baramacev, was an assistant stateroom steward aboard the Carnival Fantasy when he complained of stomach pain on March 21. For days, he reported to the ship’s doctor, only to be given pills and told to report to work.

“On March 30, I went to the doctor again and explained to him my poor status,” Baramacev says from his home in Macedonia, in Eastern Europe. “I said, ‘Doctor, what do I have to do, die in front of you so that you would pay better attention to me?'”

On April 1, in the Bahamas, his appendix burst, and Baramacev had emergency surgery. He was sent home to recover and was never hired back.

“Usually, they get minimal medical care until they can either work or be sent to their home country,” writes attorney Charles Lipcon in an information booklet for seafarers. Those sent back to their home country frequently are left with little money and no arrangements for further medical care, he writes.

Although seafarers (primarily those from Disney Cruise Lines) file some lawsuits in Brevard County, most sue in Miami-Dade County, home to Carnival and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines Ltd., Meister says.

Attorney Stephen Moon at Port Canaveral explains that in most, if not all settlements, the cruise line insists that parties sign a gag order so that seafarers cannot talk about their lawsuits or problems aboard their ship.

“Americans don’t get it. They don’t get how hard these people work and why,” Moon says. “But these are dream jobs for people who work in horrible economies.”