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LA-LB congestion worsens with import surge and labour shortages

THE congestion at the already-clogged ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, has gotten worse in just the past month with rising truck turn and container dwell times, more ships waiting at berth, and anecdotal reports from individual terminal operators

17 January 2021 - 19:00
THE congestion at the already-clogged ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, has gotten worse in just the past month with rising truck turn and container dwell times, more ships waiting at berth, and anecdotal reports from individual terminal operators.

The worsening delays came despite terminals working longer hours, reports IHS Media.



The overriding problem, terminal operators say, is that six straight months of near-record cargo volumes have congested the entire Southern California supply chain beyond its capacity. Terminal operators can't vacate laden import containers fast enough to keep up with the import surge and make room for the discharge of new arrivals.



'There is no room on the terminals,' said Anthony Otto, president of Long Beach Container Terminal (LBCT).



Average truck turn times at the 12 container terminals that make up the LA-LB complex rose to 93 minutes in December, according to Harbour Trucking Association (HTA) truck mobility data, up from the record low of 58 minutes in June when US imports from Asia plunged during the Covid-19 lockdowns. The large increase in turn times over the past few months demonstrates how rapidly the terminals went from fluid conditions early in 2020 to virtual gridlock by the fall.



While truck turn times reflect congestion at the terminal gates, increasing container dwell times highlight the congestion in the terminal yards. Mr Otto noted that containers are sitting at the terminals for seven to eight days, compared with less than three days when import volumes were much lighter last spring and early summer.



That is an indication that container terminals are buckling under container exchanges from mega-ships that continue to discharge record imports week after week, said Weston LaBar, CEO of the Harbour Trucking Association. 'It's more volume than the terminals were designed to handle,' Mr LaBar said.



Ships keep arriving in port and there were 59 container ships in the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex a week ago, with 25 of the vessels being worked and 34 at anchor awaiting berthing space, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California. Another 15 container ships were scheduled to have arrived in port through last Thursday.



The truest indication of the impact six straight months of imports from Asia totalling about 800,000 TEU per month is having on the port complex is that all 12 of the container terminals are struggling to handle the volumes. That includes terminals that had consistently had the lowest truck turn times in the harbour.



Mr LaBar said the busiest terminals have been especially challenged in getting sufficient workers during the Covid-19 pandemic because the allotment of longshore workers is rationed due to declining labour availability. 'The labour shortages are covid-related,' he said.



The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents West Coast employers, has steering committees in each region that assign labour based on the history of demand as well as the current demand for labour in each region, Jim McKenna, PMA president, said. 'So far these guys have been very accurate,' he said.



However, the total labour force in Southern California has been reduced because of Covid-19, which means fewer longshore workers are being assigned to each terminal, Mr McKenna said. 'Today, 150 to 170 longshoremen are quarantined [in Southern California],' he said. That includes dockworkers who tested positive and others who have come in contact with someone who tested positive, he added. Workers in every area of the terminal, including the maintenance and repair longshore workers who repair chassis, have been affected.



However, Mr McKenna said those longshore workers who are able to work are spending more time on the job. Each longshore worker in Los Angeles-Long Beach worked on average 5.2 shifts per week in December, up from 4.5 shifts in December 2019. In addition, the PMA and International Longshore and Warehouse Union have been adding 30 skilled equipment operators each month since last fall. 'It's an ongoing process,' Mr McKenna said.


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