12 dock workers reveal the 'never-ending' chaos at shipping ports: 'We can't keep this pace up forever'

The congested ports Los Angeles and Long Beach are crowded with container ships. This is Long Beach, California, U.S.A, September 29, 2021. Mike Blake/REUTERS
Southern California ports have set many records this year, with over 100 ships awaiting to dock.

Twelve longshoremen shared their experiences with keeping the supply chain moving, despite historical backlogs.

According to Insider, ports are moving at breakneck speed but the situation is only getting worse.

Since long, dock workers have worked night and day to maintain the supply chain. Since the pandemic began, COVID-19 shut downs and surging demands have thrown the ports into chaos. Workers say there is no way out.

Insider interviewed 12 dock workers across the US, seven of whom work in Long Beach and Los Angeles ports - which are responsible for more than 40% of all imports to the country. Insider has verified the identities of the workers who requested anonymity to discuss their jobs.

Four longshoremen who have worked at major California ports for more than 20 years said they've never witnessed anything similar to the record-breaking backlogs. Workers said that the issues are spreading to other ports, including Houston and Seattle.

Insider was told by a clerk at Port of Los Angeles that it's been "just one thing after the other." Half of my shift is spent trying to understand all the containers. It's an endless situation in which I have to constantly put out fires. It's almost impossible to do anything else.

"There is barely enough space to unload the ships."

According to the clerk who handles incoming and outgoing shipping, the high volume of containers causes chronic disorganization and mixed-ups of local and long-distance deliveries. Workers are often forced to stop loading ships and truck stock - which is essential to keep goods flowing - in order to organize the containers.

It has become more difficult to unload ships due to the backlog of goods. 8 workers from Insider reported that the number of cranes needed to unload ships has almost been reduced by half due to lack of space at ports and equipment shortages.

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Associated Press

Insider was told by a crane operator at Port of Los Angeles that companies are packing their goods onto huge ships. It would take seven to eight cranes for them to unload them. However, no terminal can handle as many cranes. Congested ports make it more difficult for us to do our job. On most days, I only have one to two crane gangs.

It can be hard to coordinate with truckers to ensure that the right container is available to cranes even after the ships are reloaded and discharged. This process took 3.6 days before the pandemic. Two crane operators claimed that they have recently taken a container to load onto a truck, but nobody was there to take it.

For the past year, workers have operated at record speeds. However, ports designed to handle 30-40 ships can't suddenly accommodate more than 160 vessels.

Insider was told by a member of the Port of Long Beach union that "We can't maintain this pace up forever." They won't do it. What is needed is a complete shutdown to allow only essential cargo to be transported.

"It's beyond our control"

Ports are seeing 30% more traffic and 28% fewer workers. Insider spoke to 12 workers who said that the private shipping companies running the terminals are reluctant to train and hire more longshoremen, or use the International Longshore and Warehouse Union's 24/7 availability.

Insider was told by a Long Beach worker that while they want to work as many hours as possible, the employers won't pay overtime for these problems. It's a delicate balance act. They want to make ends meet with as few workers as possible, but the more ships that arrive, the worse it gets."

Marine Exchange of Southern California

Workers claim that this causes a chain reaction. Ports don't want to turn away ships because they make money docking fees and unloading container containers. As long as the companies pay for their deliveries, overbooked warehouses will continue shipping goods. Multiple workers stated that once goods arrive at ports, many importers might not be motivated to transport them quickly onto trucks as there is limited warehouse space.

The Southern California ports announced Monday that they will begin charging $100 per day for containers left unattended for more than 9 days.

Insider was told by a crane operator who has worked at the Port of Los Angeles since over 40 years. "You can see from the cranes how everything must move in order for things to happen. There is no room for human error or malfunctioning machines, or scheduling errors. One person's error can cause havoc in the whole area.

Business Insider has the original article.