A shortage of skilled labor hampered container handling in Los Angeles-Long Beach on Monday, although the problem was expected to dissipate during the next couple of days as terminals worked their way out of the log jam that built up over the holidays.
According to a spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Association, the labor shortage was confined mostly to positions in the container yards that require specialized skills. On Monday’s day shift, about 1,700 dockworker orders were placed. Only 30 of those positions could not be filled because there weren’t enough longshoremen with the necessary skills.
The problems actually began last week, when, as usually happens during the holidays, many experienced dockworkers took off for the holidays. When that happens, terminals must use more part-time longshoremen, known as casuals, who may have less training for skilled positions.
The situation was more intense than usual this past week because cargo volumes have been heavy for this time of year. “We’re really busy,” said Ed DeNike, chief operating officer at SSA Marine, which operates several terminals in Southern California.
Also, heavy fog in China this time of year can delay ship departures. Shanghai has experienced some bad fog days, which resulted in vessels bunching at marine terminals in Southern California. When that happens, an over-burdened terminal operator will ask another facility to work a ship or two that it can not handle.
With the heavy cargo volume, a backlog of work from last week and the shortage of skilled labor in the yards, operations at some of the 13 container terminals in Los Angeles-Long Beach slowed down, testing the nerves of truckers. The truck lines lengthen and shorten with the time of day.
PierPass Inc. President Bruce Wargo, who was viewing televised gate operations during the post-lunch-hour period on Monday, said some terminals were experiencing long lines while lines at other facilities were normal.
From past experience, it usually takes the harbor as a whole a day or two to recover from post-holiday glitches, Wargo said.
Each year the vessels that call at U.S. ports, especially in Southern California, are getting bigger, so the container lifts during each vessel call are increasing. Some vessels with capacities of 12,000 to 14,000 20-foot containers began calling in Los Angeles-Long Beach last year, and vessels of 8,000 to 10,000-TEU capacity are now common. Those ships can generate 5,000 or more container moves during each call.
Another factor contributing to port congestion is that the Chinese New Year celebration this year will begin at the end of January, which is earlier than usual. Some retailers are therefore importing shipments early before factories in Asia close for the two-week-long celebration.
Terminal operators are therefore bracing for higher container volumes in the coming weeks until about mid-February.