The neighboring ports, a mere two nautical miles from each other, are the two largest in the country, measured by containters handled — with Los Angeles holding the top spot.
After the containers are unloaded, they are hauled away by truck or rail cars to warehouses and distribution centers, factories and stores.
Long wait times to move the goods
Before the congestion problems started in mid-2020, ships arrived off the coast of the two southern California ports and went straight to berths to offload their containers and get new ones loaded back in their place.
As of Tuesday morning there were 62 container ships anchored off the coast of southern California — 37 of them destined for the Port of LA and the other 25 destined for Long Beach. The 62 ships contain the equivalent of about 200,000 20-foot containers. Overall there were a record 100 cargo vessels — including barges, tankers, car carriers and ships that carry bulk goods — anchored just outside the ports as of Monday.
The average waiting time for ships to dock at port is about 10 days. And once they are unloaded, many of the containers will sit at the port for a week or more before anyone shows up to take them on the next leg of their journey.
“It’s like taking 10 lanes of freeway traffic and moving them into five when the cargo gets here,” Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, told CNN International recently. “We’re having difficulty absorbing all of that cargo into the American supply chain.”
Wait times have grown longer for ships to dock and unload cargo at other ports around the country. But, because of their size and importance to the national economy, the problems in Los Angeles and Long Beach have attracted special attention. About 40% of container traffic entering the United States comes through one of the two southern California ports.
Even if you live on the East Coast, many imports from Asia that you buy will enter the country through one of the two ports. Traditionally it’s been faster and cheaper for a ship to deliver a container to the US West Coast and then have it hauled across the country by rail, rather than sail the container ship from Asia directly to the East Coast.
That is why the gridlock that has gripped the ports for more than a year is affecting so much of the nation’s economy:
- It has screwed up supply chains, depriving retailers of the inventories of goods they want to sell to eager holiday shoppers.
- It is causing US factories awaiting parts to temporarily slow or stop production.
- And it is a major factor driving up prices for consumers, feeding into the worst inflation in decades.
What caused the problems
The root of the problem is not simple to pinpoint. But as with so much about the US and global economy, it starts with the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused a colossal shift in Americans’ buying habits.
Problems reach far beyond the ports
Unionized longshore jobs pay well, and employment is up at both both ports, allowing them to handle more cargo than in the past. The ports are expected to easily set records for the amount of cargo passing over their docks this year.
The problem lies with the lack of workers further down the supply chain: the truckers and the warehouse workers who are needed to handle freight once it leaves the ports.
Shortages have been exacerbated in part because older truckers are retiring during the pandemic and truck driving schools have temporarily closed. Tougher federal rules to weed out drivers who had failed drug tests also cut into their availability.
Many of the truckers who move the containers away from the port are not long-haul truckers. Instead they are local drivers taking the containers to nearby warehouses and distribution centers — drivers who are among the lowest paid in the industry. Thus there are shortages of those local drivers there as well.
All of this explains why an estimated 30% of the times available for trucks to pick up freight at the ports go unused, according to Seroka, the Port of Los Angeles’ executive.
And in fact, the Port of Los Angeles has remained mostly closed between 3 am and 8 am, despite technically being open 24/7. There just aren’t enough trucks calling on the port in those hours to make it worth it for the port’s privately owned and operated terminals to stay open around the clock.
“We’re working with importers, terminals, etc. to get a demand for that [3 am to 8 am] window,” said Phillip Sanfield, director of media relations for the port. “There’s no one single lever to pull.”
“Now we’ve got to make sure that works its way through the chain,” he said. “Because of course it’s not just the gate of the port. It’s getting those containers onto a chassis, getting them to where they need to be.”
— CNN’s Vanessa Yurkevich contributed to this report