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  • Writer's pictureStephen Fodor

COVID outbreak could cripple California container ports

January 26, 2021

(Freightwaves) Los Angeles County is at the epicenter of the current COVID surge. That county’s Los Angeles/Long Beach port complex is simultaneously at the epicenter of America’s import surge. These two spikes are now converging as hundreds of California dockworkers catch COVID.

The doomsday scenario — COVID-induced terminal closures in California at the very height of the import boom — is generally considered unlikely. But it’s being openly talked about.

“If the catastrophic infection rates continue, there may be a need to close the San Pedro Bay Port Complex to protect the health and safety of the workforce,” executives of the ILWU dockworkers union warned in a letter Monday to the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents employers.

U.S. Reps. Alan Lowenthal and Nanette Diaz Barragan said in a letter to California health officials on Jan. 15, “Without immediate action, terminals at the largest port complex in America may face the very real danger of terminal shutdowns. This would be disastrous for … the entire nation.”

ILWU (The International Longshore and Warehouse Union) Coast Committeeman Frank Ponce De Leon told American Shipper on Thursday, “Longshore workers have been moving cargo nonstop during the pandemic and want to continue to do so. But the skyrocketing rate of infections in Southern California is real and taking its toll.

COVID outbreak at top import gateway

The ILWU reported that as of Sunday, a total of 694 union members had tested positive for COVID. Of those, 364 worked in Los Angeles and 330 in Long Beach. A total of 1,080 ILWU members were exposed to people with COVID.

All workers testing positive and anyone exposed to someone testing positive from workplaces. Employers must report instances of three or more cases within 14 days. Workplaces with 20 or more cases in a 30-day period are advised to “consider halting all or part of operations.”

Infection underreporting alleged

The ILWU alleged that terminal operators have not been reporting COVID cases to the Los Angeles County Department of Health to the extent required for workplaces with three or more cases within 14 days.

It noted that only one terminal, Fenix Marine Services, had reported cases. (As of late Thursday, Fenix remained the only terminal operator in the department’s case database.) “We believe the vast majority of terminal operators are failing to report [cases] at all,” argued the ILWU.

Hacegaba responded that “speaking for [terminals in the Port of] Long Beach, we are not aware of any underreporting or misreporting.”

The ILWU stressed that if terminal operators continue to fail to report confirmed COVID cases among “all ILWU labor, management, vendors, all other workers and anyone who enters the terminal,” the union “will have no other alternative than to file complaints with all relevant agencies.”

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