Longshore & Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act

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Enacted in 1927, the Longshore & Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA) mandates benefits such as workers’ compensation for certain maritime workers. The federal act covers workers in shipyards, shipping terminals, and similar occupations. Injuries eligible for compensation must occur on U.S. navigable waters or in the adjacent areas, including areas such as piers, docks, terminals, wharves, and loading/unloading zones. The LHWCA serves as a safety net for those predominantly based in maritime trades.

The Longshore Act is also used as a model for other programs to protect occupations that go beyond the shores of the U.S. The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) covers employees working on the Outer Continental Shelf of the United States in search and development of natural resources. The Defense Base Act (DBA) covers civilian workers on U.S. military bases worldwide. Both programs are extensions of the LHWCA.

LHWCA, while covering a broad range of maritime trades, does have some significant exclusions. One primary exclusion is members of a ship's crew. These crewmembers/seamen are covered by the Jones Act of 1920 instead. U.S. government employees are also excluded as they already have their own unique benefit protections. Other excluded workers include aquaculture workers, individuals engaged with clerical/secretarial or security work, and marina employees who are not involved in construction, replacement, or expansion.

Eastern, Southern and Western Districts are the regional zones for the LHWCA administration. The Eastern District covers those workers from Virginia to Maine; the Southern District encompasses the shores of Texas to Florida and north to the Great Lakes. The Western District covers all the western coastline and waterways from Seattle to San Diego.

Overall, the LHWCA usually provides more benefits than other state workers’ compensation programs. Most states pay around 60% of an injured worker's weekly pay, whereas an injured worker covered under the LHWCA is eligible for two-thirds of their weekly wages. The Longshore Act also entitles workers to permanent partial disability benefits, which many states do not offer.

Most courts handling the LHWCA utilize a two-prong test to ensure an injured worker is eligible for coverage under the act. The first part determines what type of employee the injured worker is and whether they are covered by another program or compensation system. The second part looks at the location of the worker’s job site. Most cases used a 1–2 mile radius near water to conclude if an injured worker is eligible. Beyond such radius usually means the worker is not covered under the LHWCA.

As of most recent 2020 data, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) that oversees the LHWCA reported 34,562 active claims. Nearly half of all claims come from the Eastern District, with 10,718 claims reported in the New York sub-office alone. Just five years ago in 2016, the DOL reported 24,252 active cases, showing a climbing uptick in maritime-related claims since then. With the Covid-19 pandemic becoming more manageable, international/domestic trade is becoming more consistent, and as such maritime workers should stay alert of their protections under the LHWCA and similar legislation as they return to more normal operations.

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