Why Are Cargo Ships Still Waiting to Dock — And What Steps Are Underway to Address the Backlog?

Ships are still unable to dock in Los Angeles and Long Beach. Will Biden's announcement be a solution? What are pending problems for this ports?

Robin Hill-Gray - Author

Oct. 19 2021, Published 1:26 p.m. ET

a cargo ship waits in the water to dock at the Port of Long Beach.
Source: getty

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach alone account for nearly 40 percent of all shipping containers that enter the United States. That 40 percent has never been felt nearly as hard as it is now. As of today there are now a total of 100 cargo ships waiting to dock between Los Angeles and Long Beach. So, why are the ports so backed up?

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Labor shortages are just one factor in the port delays.

This severe bottleneck at the ports starts with massive supply chain issues. From high COVID-19 deaths in Los Angeles County over the course of the pandemic to labor shortages, it was uncertain how these massive Southern California ports were expected to recover.

port of long beach carg ships
Source: getty
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Mario Cordero, executive director of the port of Long Beach, stated in an interview with NPR that, long before the pandemic, he advocated for “extended gates” and felt that was one of the largest issues when it came to port efficiency. He also mentioned that operating around the clock would allow the port to match the efficiency of its biggest origin point, China, where ports, carriers, and warehouses all operate on a 24-hour basis.

Biden's 24-hour solution has faced logistical pushbacks.

It seemed as though Cordero would see his wishes actualized when just this past week on October 13, President Biden announced Los Angeles would now be operating on a 24/7 schedule. This change would be alongside the Long Beach ports, which had recently begun doing the same. While this would seem like a natural and reasonable solution to relieve port congestion, the decision was met with heavy pushback.

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Though there are sufficient workers moving to unload ships, there are not enough truckers or warehouse employees to match the demand. How can the weight shift if warehouses and truckers aren't willing to work on the same schedule? Moreover, how can these entities make the shift when current employees are experiencing burnout?

The effort to relieve port congestion is also hindered by workers' reluctance to leave their homes, even if they are armed with the COVID-19 vaccine. It is estimated that from the beginning of the pandemic to now, over 20,000 people have died in Los Angeles County alone. Wage increases aren't enough to lure more drivers to work long hours and risk greater exposure to COVID-19 and its variants. Additionally, those who have continued to work throughout the pandemic simply feel overworked, and the promise of higher wages may not be enough to convince them to stay or take on more hours.

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Recovery is expected to be slow as the holiday surge approaches.

Biden felt it prudent to mention that these backlogs would still persist well into next year even if operating 24 hours a day. Another issue on the horizon for ports is the expected surge of consumer spending this holiday season. It is projected that spending will increase anywhere from 5 to 9 percent. With already present item shortages from foods, household goods/items, and manufacturing equipment, it is unlikely that Long Beach and Los Angeles ports will catch up and remain afloat before the holiday season surge.


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