Ports in Southern California have broken numerous records this year as over 100 ships wait to dock.
12 Longshoremen described what it's like keeping the supply chain moving despite historic backlogs.
The workers told Insider ports are running at a break-neck pace, but the situation is getting worse.
Dock workers have long been working day and night to keep the supply chain running. But, since the pandemic started, COVID-19 shutdowns and surging demand have cast the ports into chaos - and workers say there's no end in sight.
Insider spoke with 12 dock workers from across the US, including seven that work at ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach - locations responsible for over 40% of the nation's imports. The workers asked to remain anonymous to speak freely about their jobs, but their identities have been verified by Insider.
Four longshoremen with more than 20 years of experience at the major California ports said they've never seen anything like the near-record backlogs. The issues are spilling over to ports in cities like Seattle and Houston, as well, workers said.
"It's just been one thing after another," a clerk at the Port of Los Angeles told Insider. "Half of my shift is just trying to make sense of all the containers. It's a never-ending situation where I'm just constantly putting out fires. It's nearly impossible to get anything else done."
'There's barely enough room to unload the ships'
The clerk, who manages incoming and outgoing shipments, said the high volume of containers is leading to chronic disorganization and mix-ups of long-distance and local deliveries. As a result, workers are frequently forced to stop unloading ships and stocking trucks - jobs that keep the flow of goods moving - to reorganize the containers.
The backlog of goods has also made it more difficult to unload ships. The number of cranes used to discharge ships has nearly halved due to a lack of space in the ports, as well as equipment shortages, 8 workers told Insider.
"Companies are packing their goods into massive ships that would require seven or eight cranes to unload them at full capacity, but no terminal can handle that many cranes on the dock," a crane operator at Port of Los Angeles told Insider. "Our job is so much more difficult when the ports are congested. Most days, I'm running with only one to two crane gangs at a time."
Even when the ships have been discharged and reloaded - a process that averaged 3.6 days in pre-pandemic times, but has since nearly doubled - it can be difficult to coordinate with truckers and make sure the right container is accessible to the cranes. Two crane operators said they've recently brought a container to be loaded onto a truck and nobody was there to pick it up.
The workers have been operating at record speed for the last year, but ports built to handle 30 to 40 ships cannot suddenly accommodate over 160 vessels.
"We can't keep this pace up forever," a union member from the Port of Long Beach told Insider. "They're never going to do it, but what needs to happen is a full shut down to only essential cargo."
'It's out of our control'
The ports are facing 30% more traffic with about 28% less workers. All 12 workers told Insider the private shipping companies that run the terminals have been reluctant to hire and train more longshoremen or utilize the International Longshore and Warehouse Union's capacity to work 24/7.
"We want to work as much as possible, but the employers don't want to pay the overtime to get these problems fixed," a part-time worker at Long Beach told Insider. "It's a balancing act, they want to scrape by with just enough workers, but the more ships that come in, the worse it gets."
Workers say that leads to a chain reaction: Ports are wary of turning ships away because they earn money from docking fees and unloading containers. Overbooked warehouses won't stop shipping goods as long as companies continue paying for the deliveries. And once the goods arrive at the ports, some importers may not be incentivized to move them quickly onto trucks because warehouse space is running out, multiple workers said.
On Monday, the Southern California ports said they would begin charging a $100 per day fee for containers left in the yards for over 9 days.
"It's a fine orchestra," a crane operator, who worked at the Port of Los Angeles for over 40 years, told Insider. "From the cranes you can see how everything has to move perfectly for things to get done. There's no room for human error, a malfunctioning machine, or a scheduling error. If just one person isn't where they're supposed to be, it wreaks havoc on the entire area."
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