Long Beach, LA docks work round the clock to slog through backlog of shipments
The way Dwayne Clavon Sr. sees it, he’s ready to do his job, but the Port of Los Angeles isn’t always ready for him.
On a weekday last month, the tall, thin driver had to sit in a line of trucks that weren’t moving, waiting to unload an empty shipping container at the San Pedro Port Complex.
Clavon’s job has three essential parts: his truck tractor to haul the containers; the containers of products; and the container chassis, which attaches to his truck to secure the container. His link in the supply chain is being pinched by a shortage of chassis – the load-bearing equipment that attaches to big-rig trucks.
“They keep saying there’s a shortage of drivers,” Clavon said. “No, there’s a shortage of chassis. They’re stacking them up all over the place and not servicing them. When we try to go turn in a container or get a load out, we can’t get it out because there’s nothing to put them on.”
Pointing to a stack of chassis near the Vopak Terminal at the port, Clavon said he has to “work way more than I should” just to get the job done.
The Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are open 24/7 as longshoremen, truck drivers and other workers try to clear the backlog of cargo stuck in the port. The ports employ 171,000 directly and create 3 million jobs throughout the country, according to port authorities. Together, this workforce imported 9.2 million shipping containers in 2020, handling more than $250 billion in such cargo as furniture and apparel that comes mostly from China, Japan and Vietnam.
The crisis can be felt at multiple levels. Longshoremen who are working overtime to get the containers off the boats and onto trucks. The politicians and port authorities who are working to find solutions on the management of the issue to ensure goods will be on time for the holidays.
And there are the truck drivers, like Clavon, who are finding ways to work quickly despite systemwide slowdowns.
That day, another driver took the wheel for Clavon, who was frustrated and headed back to the port. When he spotted a news team, he stopped his car and ran across the street to vent those frustrations.
“I was just in line (at a container drop spot) for over 45 minutes before I switched with another driver because I had to do something else,” Clavon said. “We didn’t move.”
Workforce under pressure
Danny Miranda is president of the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Workers Union Local 94. He grew up in the area and, after serving in the Army, followed in his father’s footsteps to the docks.
“We worked through the COVID pandemic without any work stoppage, our rank and file members have worked diligently through the pandemic, and we continue to work,” Miranda said. “We’re ready to go, we have the labor to do the work and we’ll continue to work hard.”
Because of the union pay structure, salaries are set in their contract, so longshoremen are not receiving extra cash for the challenging workload. But Miranda is confident the crews can continue to get the job done.
“(Hard work is) our tradition, that’s what we’ve done for our whole careers and we will continue to do that,” Miranda said.
The increased workload hasn’t resulted in issues with untrained labor, he said, noting there’s a strong development pipeline of skilled longshoremen.
Politicians are working to find solutions to keep the ports flowing, from President Joe Biden to local officials. Long Beach Vice Mayor Rex Richardson said he has been working to find ways to alleviate the job stress of the longshoremen.
“All of those people have lives, have children, have families and are impacted by goods movement,” Richardson said. “These are people that work 24 hours a day to make sure that we have the goods that we need in America.”
He said the Mayor’s Office has worked with the federal government to ensure efficiency and quality at the ports.
“We have worked hand in hand with our port and the federal government from a land-use standpoint, from a logistics standpoint, that we are making sure our supply chain is (running) 24 hours, our warehouses are able to stack and that it’s not coming at the expense of our local residents,” Richardson said.
At the federal level, Biden met Nov. 29 with top CEOs of technology and food companies to discuss how the corporations are handling supply chain kinks. Many expressed confidence that despite the issues, there shouldn’t be issues with getting products on shelves for the holiday season.
The frustrating thing for the workers, Clavon said, is that while their lives are harder, the cash is still flowing at the top.
“The ports are making money regardless,” he said. “Whether the containers are sitting there or they go out.”
This is the third in a three-part series examining supply-chain issues. Read part 1: Searching for solutions to the global supply chain crisis; and part 2: Arizona restaurants struggle to find food and workers while keeping prices low.