Nearly 700 dockworkers in the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have contracted COVID-19 and hundreds more are taking virus-related leave, raising fears of a severe slowdown in the multi-billion dollar logistics economy of the region.
A growing infection rate of longshoremen, which parallels the virus outbreak across California, is exacerbating a massive growl at ports due to a pandemic-induced surge in imports. Port officials, union leaders and elected officials are mounting an urgent campaign to launch the vaccination of dockworkers, fearing that a labor shortage will force the terminals to close.
âWe have more cargo than skilled labor,â said Eugene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles. âWe are told that 1,800 workers are not working because of COVID right now. That can [include] those who are isolated through contact tracing or awaiting test results. Or maybe [those who] scared … going to work when a lot of people are sick.
Workplaces across California, from giant warehouses to neighborhood businesses, face soaring coronavirus cases as they try to stay afloat amid see-saw restrictions. As the pandemic has worsened, it has become more difficult to contain the virus, especially among essential workers in the LA area – which include dockworkers as well as grocery store clerks and nurses.
“My heart goes out to the dockworkers,” LA County Health Department director Barbara Ferrer said at a press conference on Wednesday. âI’ve heard from a lot of them that there have been a lot of epidemics. There is a lot of fear. “
The longshoremen are among the many essential workers who want to get vaccinated soon, she added. âHundreds and hundreds of outbreaks have been reported with this latest wave. Lots of community transmission. Lots of transmission in the workplaceâ¦. Right now we are moving rather slowly because we just don’t have enough vaccines. “
In the first months of the pandemic, container volume at the Port of Los Angeles plunged almost 19%, but in the second half of 2020 it increased by almost 50%. âWe don’t buy plane tickets or go to football games and movies,â Seroka said. âWe spend money on retail products. “
A backlog in ports is now facing the COVID crisis. As of Tuesday, 45 ships were anchored outside the twin ports awaiting unloading, part of a multi-month bottleneck unprecedented since a slowdown in work six years ago.
“Without immediate action, terminals at America’s largest port complex could face the very real danger of terminal closures,” wrote Representative Nanette Diaz Barragan (D-San Pedro) and Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) to California and Los Angeles County health officials on Jan.15. “It would be disastrous not only for the communities of South Bay, but also for the entire nation which depends on the vital flow of goods through these ports.”
The warning from the two members of Congress came days after Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and other local officials wrote to Gov. Gavin Newsom and Mark Ghaly, California’s secretary for government. health and social services, urging them to speed up the vaccination of the 15,000 dockers in southern California “as soon as possible”.
The ports, they wrote, “are considered critical infrastructure for national security purposes and medical supplies for the pandemic.” Imports of pandemic equipment from Asia, including masks, disinfectants and ventilators for hospitals and other businesses across the country, primarily transit through the Los Angeles and Long Beach complex.
Seroka said logistics companies, port managers and officials at the International Longshore and Warehouse Union “have been working from every angle possible” since December to get help testing and vaccinating dockworkers. âWe haven’t seen a tank top get vaccinated yet. “
The state determines the priority of vaccines, Ferrer said. So far, healthcare workers, first responders, residents and trained nursing facility staff are on the front lines. About 450,000 Los Angeles County healthcare workers have yet to be vaccinated, and other groups will be prioritized once those workers receive their vaccines – likely not until early February.
Port officials, union leaders and local elected officials want dockworkers to be eligible for vaccines after medical and other frontline workers.
Last week, Newsom announced that vaccinations would be open to Californians 65 and older and this week the city and county of Los Angeles opened portals to offer appointments for residents 65 and older. But the county has yet to receive enough doses to meet demand.
Newsom’s office did not respond to a request for comment on dockers’ vaccinations.
Longshoremen report infections through a portal jointly operated by the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Assn., Which represents terminal employers. According to the ILWU, of the 694 dockworkers who reported COVID-19 infections as of January 17, 12 have died.
In a letter this week to the shipping association, three ILWU chairmen in Southern California said that only one terminal, Fenix ââMarine Services, out of the 12 terminals in the twin ports reported an outbreak. since the start of the pandemic, involving 15 workers.
Under Los Angeles County regulations, if a workplace has at least three confirmed cases of COVID-19 in 14 days, the employer must immediately notify the county public health department. “This is not done by the terminal operators of the San Pedro Bay port complex,” the representatives wrote. âThe vast majority of terminal operators do not report anything at all. “
James McKenna, president and CEO of the shipping association, said: âThere is probably a chance that [terminals] have underestimated. After receiving the letter, he added, his group “reiterated with them that they must report continuously and in a timely manner.”
Asked about law enforcement, Ferrer said that if workers were concerned about serious violations at their sites, they could report them anonymously to the online health service and through the service’s call center (888-700 -9995). âWe are investigating all epidemics,â she said.
The county does not track infections by occupation because data is limited, she said.
McKenna challenged the number of dockworkers currently inactive by the pandemic, saying the 1,800 cited by ILWU, port officials and elected officials total for all California ports and include workers on leave for other illnesses .
According to the longshoremen’s union, the positivity rate, which measures the prevalence of infections relative to the number of tests, is 65% for the Port of Los Angeles and 71% for the Port of Long Beach. But McKenna said those percentages are unreliable because workers with negative tests may not enter their information into the portal.
Neither Seroka nor Mario Cordero, executive director of the Port of Long Beach, said they expected any terminal closures to be imminent. âBut I don’t want to wait until it’s too late to say, ‘Now we have to stop this thing,’â Seroka said. “We have to keep driving.”
Cordero approved the need for immediate vaccinations for dockworkers. âIf we don’t do something quickly,â he said, âwe are jeopardizing the smooth flow of goods. “