Shipping Delays Feared as California's Two Largest Ports Face COVID Outbreaks
COVID-19 infections among dockworkers and a pandemic-fueled torrent of imports have created a perfect storm at California's two busiest ports.
The Los Angeles Times reported that nearly 700 dockworkers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have contracted COVID-19, and hundreds more have had to take virus-related leave, creating the potential for a debilitating slowdown. As of Jan. 20, a total of 45 ships were waiting to unload—the largest bottleneck in six years.
“We’ve got more cargo than we do skilled labor,” Eugene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, told the LA Times. “We are told 1,800 workers are not going on the job due to COVID right now. That can [include] those who are isolating through contact tracing or awaiting test results. Or maybe [those who] fear … going on the job when a lot of people are sick.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, the U.S. saw a slowdown of products coming from China, which was then the epicenter of the virus. At that point, container volume at the Port of Los Angeles dropped about 19 percent. But, in the second half of 2020, as more people worked (and shopped) from home, volume rose by about 50 percent.
California’s infection rates are on the decline from the mid-January peak seven-day average of 44,197, but still at a current seven-day average of 25,576 new cases. In the last two weeks, Los Angeles County alone reported about 153,000 total cases.
According to the the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, positivity rate at the Port of Los Angeles is currently 65%, and 71% at the port of Long Beach. Those numbers could be misleading, however, due to inconsistent self-reporting (more on that in a bit).
As essential workers, dock employees are theoretically a priority for vaccination. But vaccine shortages and logistical issues have been a problem.
“Right now we’re moving fairly slowly because we just don’t have enough vaccine,” LA County Health Department director Barbara Ferrer said, according to the Times.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and other officials wrote to California Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state’s health and human services secretary to push them to speed up the vaccination effort among Southern California’s 15,000 dockworkers.
So far, according to Seroka, not a single longshore worker at the two ports has gotten a vaccine yet.
The worst case scenario right now for Los Angeles and the U.S. overall, relying on the major West Coast port, would be shutdowns, as laid out by California Reps. Nanette Diaz Barragan and Alan Lowenthal.
“Without immediate action, terminals at the largest port complex in America may face the very real danger of terminal shutdowns,” they wrote to California and LA County health officials this month. “This would be disastrous not only for the communities of the South Bay, but also the entire nation, which relies upon the vital flow of goods through these ports.”
Another issue at the ports has been the alleged failure to comply with California reporting mandates. As we saw with the ports’ slightly inland neighbor, Los Angeles Apparel, the state requires immediate notification if a workplace has three or more confirmed COVID-19 cases in 14 days.
Representatives for three Southern California longshore workers unions said only one of the ports' combined 12 terminals has reported an outbreak since last March. It involved 15 workers.
“This is not being done by terminal operators at the San Pedro Bay port complex,” the representatives said. “The vast majority of terminal operators are failing to report at all.”
Seroka and Mario Cordero, executive director of the Port of Long Beach, told the LA Times that they don’t expect “any imminent terminal shutdowns,” but they don’t want to leave the issue going until it’s too late and they do need to issue shutdowns.
“If we don’t do something fast, we are jeopardizing the fluidity of the movement of cargo,” Cordero said.
Most promo suppliers have domestic stock on hand, lessening the immediate impact of shipping delays from China. But the longer port slowdowns draw on, the greater the chance delays could affect orders as the year plays out.