Southern California waterfront employers say rising dockworker infection rates have contributed to a reduction in terminal productivity at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, but stressed that cargo-handling activity will not be interrupted.
Employers and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) leadership praised labor for working amid the COVID-19 pandemic as the top US import gateway experiences an unprecedented surge of imports from Asia that began building in the summer.
The ILWU on Jan. 15 called on local, state, and federal elected officials to give immediate priority to longshore workers, as front-line essential workers, in receiving vaccines for the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). The ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) said there have been more than 600 known cases of the coronavirus at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and 12 deaths, since Dec. 1.
“Longshore workers have been working every day through the pandemic to keep cargo moving despite the exposure to a life-threatening virus they face every day,” Frank Ponce De Leon, ILWU coast committeeman, told JOC.com.
“They are showing up more than five days a week. It’s pretty heroic,” said Jim McKenna, president of the PMA, which represents waterfront employers on the West Coast. He added that terminals in Los Angeles and Long Beach will continue to receive enough labor, albeit at a reduced level, to handle near record-level cargo volumes.
The acceleration of COVID-19 cases on the Los Angeles-Long Beach waterfront reflect the overall devastation from the pandemic in Southern California compared with other parts of the country. According to the PMA, about 100 ILWU members in December tested positive for the virus in Oakland, Portland, and Seattle-Tacoma combined, compared with 360 in Los Angeles-Long Beach. In the first two weeks of January, there were 34 positive cases in the northern ports, and 268 in Southern California, which indicates cases are escalating, McKenna said.
Shortage of equipment operators is the problem
With about 12,000 registered and casual (part-time) ILWU workers in Southern California, there is sufficient labor for many cargo-handling activities, McKenna said. However, full work gangs can be dispatched only if there are enough longshore workers that have been trained to operate the cranes that move containers within the terminal yards. Those crane operators lift containers into and out of the stacks and onto trucks. Yard crane operators have been in short supply since the port complex was inundated with imports last summer, he said.
Therefore, the maximum number of longshore work gangs that are allocated to each terminal today is four, McKenna said. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, terminals would ask for, and receive, as many gangs as they needed, he said. For large vessels of 10,000 to more than 15,000 TEU capacity, terminals regularly deploy six or more gangs per vessel.
The shortage of trained equipment operators is due in large part to the unprecedented cargo volumes in Los Angeles-Long Beach since late June, and the productivity-destroying residual effects throughout the Southern California supply chain, including chassis shortages, excessive container dwell times on the terminals, long truck queues at the gates, and import distribution warehouses filled to capacity.
Warehouse operators throughout Southern California are also struggling with labor shortages due to the explosion of e-commerce fulfillment merchandise, as well as social distancing requirements at the facilities, said Scott Weiss, vice president of business development at the warehouse and trucking company Port Logistics Group.
“There are huge challenges getting labor with this high demand. It’s never been more challenging to operate a warehouse,” he said.