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CHILD SUPPORT LIENS AND SEAMAN’S MAINTENANCE

Some injured seamen who rely upon maintenance payments for economic support while recovering from injuries, have been dealt a blow by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In Aguilera v. Fishing Company of Alaska 535 F. 3d 1007 (August 2008) the Court held that a Texas State lien for back child support could be deducted from a seaman’s maintenance payments. The Court reasoned that under Texas’ law, maintenance is “wages”or “disability and workers compensation benefits,” subject to withholding for back child support payments.

When a seaman or fisherman is injured or becomes ill while working aboard a vessel, they are entitled to maintenance under the General Maritime Law. Maintenance is a daily living allowance provided to a crewman while he is recovering from his shipboard injury or illness. Maintenance payments are a minimal living allowance for room and food, and the typical rate is $25-$35 per day until the seaman has reached maximum medical improvement, or the seaman is fit to return to duty. Maintenance payments to injured seamen allow them to survive just above the poverty line, and do not include any living allowance to support the injured crewman’s family.

The Ninth Circuit’s recent ruling in Aguilera v. Fishing Company of Alaska means that an injured seaman, who may be receiving as little as $25 to $35 per day as a living allowance from his employer, may have his maintenance benefits cut in half, with the other half going to DSHS to repay them for back child support obligations.

In a discriminatory and retaliatory practice, some fishing companies utilize child support liens to punish seamen who seek maintenance benefits. When a seaman becomes injured and seeks compensation for negligence or unseaworthiness, the employer then contacts DSHS to alert them that the seaman is receiving maintenance payments and to determine whether or not the crewman has a back child support obligation. Having been alerted by the injured seaman’s employer, DSHS then files a notice of lien against the seaman’s maintenance and claim for Jones Act compensation.