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COVID outbreak could cripple California container ports

Los Angeles County is at the epicenter of the current COVID surge. That county’s Los Angeles/Long Beach port complex is simultaneously at the epicenter of America’s import surge. These two spikes are now converging as hundreds of California dockworkers catch COVID.

 “If the catastrophic infection rates continue, there may be a need to close the San Pedro Bay Port Complex to protect the health and safety of the workforce,” executives of the ILWU dockworkers union warned in a letter Monday to the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents employers.

ILWU Coast Committeeman Frank Ponce De Leon told American Shipper on Thursday, “Longshore workers have been moving cargo nonstop during the pandemic and want to continue to do so. But the skyrocketing rate of infections in Southern California is real and taking its toll.

“We are coming close to surpassing the number of infections that we had experienced in the last eight months of 2020 in just the first two months of 2021,” said De Leon.

Weighing chance of terminal shutdowns

Asked about the chance of California terminal shutdowns due to COVID, Port of Long Beach Deputy Executive Director Noel Hacegaba told American Shipper, “We will continue to work around the clock to avoid that scenario.”

Government officials and port stakeholders vehemently urge that dockworkers get a higher vaccine prioritization level

COVID outbreak at top import gateway

The ILWU reported that as of Sunday, a total of 694 union members had tested positive for COVID. Of those, 364 worked in Los Angeles and 330 in Long Beach. A total of 1,080 ILWU members were exposed to people with COVID.

Infection underreporting alleged

The ILWU alleged that terminal operators have not been reporting COVID cases to the Los Angeles County Department of Health to the extent required for workplaces with three or more cases within 14 days.

 “We believe the vast majority of terminal operators are failing to report [cases] at all,” argued the ILWU.

The ILWU stressed that if terminal operators continue to fail to report confirmed COVID cases among “all ILWU labor, management, vendors, all other workers and anyone who enters the terminal,” the union “will have no other alternative than to file complaints with all relevant agencies.”

COVID curbing port throughput

Even if there are no terminal shutdowns ahead, COVID is already affecting trade flows through California ports. As previously reported by American Shipper, San Pedro Bay is a veritable parking lot of container ships waiting for berths.

Asked whether recent spot labor shortages were due to too much import volume or too few workers due to COVID, Sanfield replied, “Both. It’s a combination of a lot of things. Certainly, the unprecedented import surge we’ve seen for months now is at the top of the list. Then you layer less dockworkers than we normally have on top of that.”

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