USDA, Port Hueneme Appeals Keep Inspectors on the Job

USDA, Port Hueneme Appeals Keep Inspectors on the Job

Meat and poultry inspectors, normally among the most anonymous and least visible of the federal government’s work force, received enormous media scrutiny in early April — simply because they went to work as usual. The Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal all took a lengthy look at what the Post called the inspectors’ “get-out-of-the-sequester card.”

The papers took notice because under the federal budget sequestration process, politics and lobbying were supposed to be kept out of the funding cuts with the ax dropping on all programs equally.

But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack started early in March with a frequent and pointed message: Under the sequester process, all inspectors would have to be laid off for 11 days with no room for budgetary debate.

If, as he suggested, the furloughs happened simultaneously, the U.S. meat industry would come to a halt for more than two weeks; processing plants aren’t allowed to operate if inspectors aren’t present. Such a shutdown would have affected the domestic protein supply and put a serious crimp in exports.

After handwringing, a major lobbying effort and consternation on the Hill, Congress passed $55 million in new funds to allow U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors to stay on the job.

It received no national notice, but Southern California’s Port Hueneme also got one of the rare budget reprieves that allowed the produce and auto port to continue normal operations.

To prepare for the beginning of sequestration cuts, Customs and Border Protection officials told Southern California ports that all overtime funds would be cut and an “on-shift budget” would be followed strictly. Customs inspectors are required to board incoming vessels.

For the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the elimination of overtime wouldn’t be a deep cut, because more shifts and hours are included in the basic budget.

But in Port Hueneme, it meant no vessels could enter between 5 p.m. Friday and 8 a.m. Monday. Boarding of ships arriving from foreign ports on weekends typically meant overtime hours for Customs officers and the union workers handling cargo.

“We looked at this as a real injustice,” said Kristin Decas, Hueneme’s executive director. “It meant that our longshoremen wouldn’t get any weekend hours and the carriers were looking at extra costs of $25,000 to $55,000 a day while the vessels were idle.”

There was additional concern because a sizable portion of Port Hueneme’s business is perishable produce that customers are eager to get off the vessel and onto grocery store shelves.

Port, city, county and state officials and the congressional delegation got busy on the phones. “Our elected officials, our customers, the community and our labor — everyone was very aggressive in working with Customs,” Decas said.

In addition to the flood of letters and calls, Decas said she flew to Washington to visit Customs headquarters. “In the end, we were able to convince officials at the top level of Customs that denying overtime that cost a couple hundred dollars a vessel should not cost the carriers $25,000 to $55,000 or cut pay to that many longshoremen and port workers,” she said.

When a vessel arrives after 5 p.m. Friday, inspectors have been made available on overtime pay, but “on a case-by-case basis,” Decas said.

“We want to get a solid fix and have it in the (Office of Management and Budget) budget documents,” she said. “We’re still working hard to get that done.”

The situation was considered so dire that carriers and customers offered to pay the overtime. “We learned that under current law, private parties aren’t allowed to step in and pick up those costs,” Decas said. Port officials and the congressional delegation are considering piggybacking on a pending budget bill for the Federal Aviation Administration that has a similar private-pay proposal.

“If the problem is solved at the OMB, we wouldn’t ask for the legislative change,” Decas said. “We wouldn’t want to set up a slippery slope with user fees that the industry is really already paying.”

To date, federal inspectors working at ports of entry examining food imports haven’t been affected by the sequestration, but there is some concern in the industry that when the peak season hits for imports, funding could fall short and delays could cause supply chain congestion.

USDA personnel also are required to board traditional reefer vessels and recertify them for cold treatment of perishable cargo every three years.

The impact has been minimal, according to Howard Posner, general manager for North America of refrigerated shipping operator Seatrade. “The good thing is the budget problems are hitting when we’re going into the slower season,” he said. “The industry likes to have vessels recertified while they are already at a U.S. port. Around Philadelphia and New York, we haven’t had problems. We tried to have one recertified in New Orleans and were told they don’t have personnel available.”

If the three-year certification expires while a vessel is at a foreign port, carriers must pay travel and overtime for a USDA inspector to go overseas and recertify a vessel before it can be loaded for a return trip to a U.S. port. 

Contact Stephanie Nall at stephnalljoc@gmail.com.