The start of the peak-shipping season is still more than a month away, but marine terminal congestion in Los Angeles-Long Beach is mounting so rapidly that harbor truckers are in a state of panic.
"We're weeks away from a meltdown," Brian Griley, president of Southern Counties Express, told a meeting of the Harbor Transportation Club of Southern California Tuesday.
Reports from container ports across the nation paint a scenario similar to what is developing at the nation's largest port complex. Terminal operators that downsized their operations during last year's economic recession have been caught unprepared by the double-digit growth in cargo volume. Truckers are waiting at terminal gates, sometimes for hours, for service.
Industry executives expect cargo volume to remain strong throughout the summer-fall peak season as imports show no sign of letting up. "Chinese factories are booked through November," said Alan Baer, president of the cargo consolidator and logistics provider Ocean World Lines.
Terminal operators last year cut back on use of experienced longshoremen, known as steadies. Employers who hire the same longshoremen day after day must often pay them a bonus commensurate with their experience and productivity.
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However, cargo volume last year plunged 15 percent and terminals achieved a state of fluidity unheard of in recent times. Employers therefore sent their steady workers back to the hiring hall to avoid having to pay bonuses. Employers stopped paying "gratuitous hours" to the steadies, said Chad Lindsay, Southern California vice president at the Pacific Maritime Association.
Furthermore, terminals cut out costly practices they had employed when cargo volume was stronger. They eliminated early-morning and late afternoon "flex" gates and began closing their terminals for an hour during lunch.
By doing so, the terminals set themselves up for gridlock when volume early this year began to soar. Truckers soon experienced lengthy delays in the morning and in early afternoon after the lunch break.
"We need help," said Bob Massman, vice president of Dependable Companies, a harbor trucker. His first suggestion was for terminals to keep the gates open during lunch and breaks "so an eight-hour shift is eight hours."
Lindsay said that with cargo volume mounting, terminals once again are beginning to offer flex gates and work through lunch breaks. The terminals are also considering returning to a five-day per-week extended gates program under PierPass and they may roll out a port-wide appointment system soon.
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