LONG BEACH, Calif. — The decision by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to cease overtime work for its personnel while Washington attempts to solve the sequestration issue will be a burden for all ports, but it could be disastrous for the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
That’s because the nation’s largest port complex is the only gateway in the country with a formal program of night and weekend shifts that are needed to prevent marine terminals from being overwhelmed with container traffic during the normal five daytime shifts each week.
Customs plays a crucial role in the PierPass extended-gates program by paying its inspectors and other personnel overtime, as needed, to cover as many as four night gates and one Saturday gate each week. “Here they use overtime as a force multiplier,” said Michele Grubbs, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.
The PMSA, which represents West Coast shipping lines and terminal operators, joined executives from the two ports this week to express their concerns about sequestration directly to Customs’ district office. PMSA also sent letters to state and national political representatives requesting relief.
Sean Strawbridge, managing director of trade operations and port operations at the Port of Long Beach, said Customs’ no-overtime decree will hurt the ports in three areas: hours-of-service reductions for manning radiation portal monitors, shipments requiring intensive examinations and vessel boarding by Customs personnel.
The ports and the PMSA are working with Customs to develop an immediate response to the no-overtime decree, and a longer-term response for when the agency initiates furloughs effective April 21 if there is no resolution of the issue by that date.
Various proposals are being discussed, such as staggering Customs shifts to ensure coverage of day and night shifts at the marine terminals, Strawbridge said. The trade community also is working with the agency on issues related to mandatory firearms training programs for Customs personnel to ensure the officers comply with those requirements while having enough officers and inspectors to process cargo.
One idea being floated is for the ports to assign some of their law enforcement employees to escort containers or perform similar functions that can free up Customs staff to perform inspections and other tasks that can only be carried out by the agency, Strawbridge said.
Grubbs cited one possible problem scenario involving radiation portal monitors, which are used to scan containers to ensure there are no nuclear weapons of mass destruction in the containers.
Two inspectors are assigned to an RPM. If an alarm sounds, one Customs inspector re-examines the box that triggered the alarm while the other officer continues to inspect the other containers. If only one Customs officer is available, the entire line must be shut down while the red-flagged container is inspected. This will lead to a quick backup at the marine terminal, Grubbs said.
Customs believes the ports have a two-week reprieve before serious problems develop. For now, container volumes are light in this period after the Chinese New Year celebrations in Asia. Soren Skou, CEO of Maersk Line, told The Journal of Commerce’s TPM Conference in Long Beach on Monday that as many as 30 sailings from Asia were canceled while factories there were shut down for the celebrations.
The lull will end soon, however. Not only will weekly sailings resume, but the initial sailings also could have near full utilization as factories in Asia make up for New Year-related shutdown of production.
Bruce Wargo, president of PierPass Inc., said Customs’ inability to fulfill normal overtime staffing requirements is a “big deal” that will snowball with each passing week. As with any event that interrupts cargo-handling, containers must move quickly through the system each week with little or no backlogs. If a backlog forms one week, the vessel arrivals in subsequent weeks will aggravate the backlog.
Terminal operators must be able to plan their labor needs week after week. “Really, we have had very short notice for planning purposes,” Wargo said.