Port Congestion Slows Trucks and Drivers

In a recent interview Danny Wan the executive director of the Port of Oakland and president of the California Association of Port Authorities was asked by NPR why the ports were backed up, he attributed the ports problems to numerous factors, including a lack of drivers, saying:

“Well, there are several chokepoints in the supply chain. Each link in the chain is contributing to this. One, there is space in the harbors on the land side in terms of availability to store the containers once they’re unloaded, then there’s shortages of truckers to move that container from the port onto these sites where the warehouses are. There’s limitations of warehousing space. And then, of course, there’s a rail connection that’s also a chokepoint, as well. So each link in the chain has its own problems that’s contributing to the backup. Of course, the main cause is the surge in the consumers buying these goods and inability for the capacity to accommodate that.” FULL INTERVIEW WITH NPR

Wan’s analysis jibes with what other industry insiders are seeing with port congestion and truck backlogs. Numerous sources are citing the lack of chassis for shipping containers as another constraint. Cargo Link reports:

“This particular issue proves to create a very problematic scenario for both the truckers and also for the shippers. So far, the industry has seen an enormous uprise in re-delivery costs, port storage, equipment and chassis storage because of the appointment system.

The average street dwell time has increased to 7+ days, and this means that a good portion of chassis are stuck at warehouses and trucker lots for more than a week. Especially with the import surge in September, port utilization rose to 90 percent, which ultimately contributed to the existing problems. ” ARTICLE

There is also another problem, empty containers are building up as well. According to news reports – “U.S. ports have been inundated with cargo since the pandemic shifted spending away from restricted entertainment like travel and dining out to physical goods. COVID-19 also reduced labor needed to keep goods flowing smoothly. Aging truckers retired early, while infection control measures have limited dock and warehouse staffing.

There are now roughly 65,000 empty containers on the Port of Los Angeles docks, up about 18% from just a couple of weeks ago, said the port’s executive director, Gene Seroka. He added that “sweeper” ships are inbound to shuttle some of those boxes back to factories in Asia.” REUTERS

Some commentators have laid the blame at the pay structure for truck drivers, where drivers are paid by the load and have to sit in their truck and wait idling at no expense to shippers. According to a NBC report:

“We don’t have a truck driver shortage at the ports,” said Steve Viscelli, an economic sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “The problem is that these truckers’ time is used so inefficiently. The cranes, the longshoreman labor, all that gets priced and used efficiently.”

In the port ecosystem, truck drivers are paid by the load, not by the hour, making them some of the most vulnerable workers, Viscelli said. Other port workers get overtime pay and belong to unions, but truckers are classified as independent contractors. As such, they aren’t considered employees and don’t get any of the benefits or protections associated with that status.

“Truck drivers are the shock absorbers,” he said. “If the cranes are running behind, you can just keep the trucker there idle. You can back them up for hours, because they’re not being paid.”

Because of how they’re classified and compensated, truck drivers wait around until they’re needed, at no cost to the shipping companies. That means there’s little incentive to change and use them more efficiently, Viscelli said. 

In contrast, efforts to reduce inefficiencies in other areas of the ports continue and have been successful. For instance, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach announced a plan last month to fine shipping companies that leave their cargoes on the docks for too long. The promise of fines proved so successful that the ports have delayed implementing them because early compliance led to a 26 percent drop in lingering containers. FULL ARTICLE

Nimesh Modi, CEO of BookYourCargo in a recent opinion piece in Transport Dive argues that the whole model is broken when it comes to recruiting drivers for the ports. “One of the most critical issues for drayage operations, domestically, is the exodus of drivers and the lack of any real pipeline to recruit and retain new ones.

Though “driver shortage” tends to be a concept thought of mostly in terms of trucking’s long-haul segment, the driver shortage has become dire at the ports, where drivers have been fleeing drayage work in droves.

It’s time to figure out solutions that make drayage workable in the modern world, so that drayage carriers can attract and retain a vital driver workforce….

….Like the broader driver shortage plaguing other segments of trucking, it will take a multi-pronged approach. But first and foremost, we must listen to dray drivers, hear their concerns, and take these concerns seriously. FULL OPINION PIECE

We will be watching this topic closely, so watch for updates.