Congestion attributed to labor shortages, computer glitches, and a reduced supply of container chassis led the Port of Authority of New York and New Jersey in December to form a Port Performance Task Force. Then a string of winter storms severely disrupted operations.
One of the main problems, maritime officials say, is a shortage of dock workers.
Local trucking industry officials and shippers also complain that there are not enough chassis and maintenance workers to repair them. The port authority reported at one point that 600 chassis were laid up because they were not roadworthy. New York/New Jersey also lacks a common chassis pool that would allow drivers to pick up and drop the equipment at one location, forcing drivers to visit multiple storage sites before entering the port. The congestion problems led truckers and shippers to horde chassis to minimize the time spent on each transaction.
Last summer, Maher Terminal had trouble installing new software for automating operations and temporarily resorted to more manual methods to manage cargo flows. It was forced to divert ships to other container terminals in the port, which created unforeseen demand for chassis and equipment at those locations.
“We just experienced the most catastrophic port congestion issue in 25 years,” Ken Kellaway, president and CEO of RoadOne Intermodal Logistics, said April 8 in Baltimore at an Environmental Protection Agency summit on sustainable ports.
RoadOne, based in Randolph, Mass., is a national drayage provider that operates in 40 ports and rail ramps around the country. A driver shuttling containers between the port and a nearby transload facility should be able to make three to four moves a day, but “we were down to less than one turn a day for five months,” Kellaway said.
The company and some of its cargo customers helped pay the drivers for their wait times, which cut into margins, he said.
In February, the Retail Industry Leaders Association asked the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to take immediate action to alleviate the situation.
“The disruptions that have been taking place at the port have had damaging consequences on the delivery of retailers’ goods … retailers are concerned that further disruptions will take place, resulting in lost sales, empty shelves and disappointed customers,” RILA said in its letter.
The group outlined four initiatives the port authority and other stakeholders can pursue to winnow the backlog and restore productivity to port operations:
- Terminals should staff themselves for a complete two-shift operation, at a minimum, including weekends and holidays until on-dock, gate and rail operations return.
- Chassis inspections should be conducted in a safe and reasonable manner that does not place units “out of service” that are not an immediate hazard.
- The port should assign constant traffic oversight to mitigate the ripple effect of one terminal queue impacting others.
- Fees that are attributable to the delays caused by the port’s challenges should be suspended until the port operations can return to normal.
According to the port authority, business groups, motor carriers and local maritime officials, conditions have improved in recent weeks. Terminals, for example, have been staying open later.
But the situation is far from optimal. The Association of Bi-State Motor Carriers said in mid-March that it only took drivers three or four hours to get in and out of a terminal. The long wait times make it difficult for truckers to get a second move in the day before reaching their 11-hour federal limit behind the wheel.
And the Port Performance Task Force is not scheduled to provide its recommendations until June. The group is taking inventory of every step of the import/export process through the port and where potential bottlenecks exist to determine potential solutions. It is also trying to benchmark chassis usage and storage requirements, as well as improve turn times for drayage drivers.
Meanwhile, a coalition of business and labor leaders in late March called on the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor to fill almost 700 empty jobs at the region’s ports and give more autonomy to the shipping industry and labor to control future hiring. The commission must approve requests to allow more workers on the New York docks.
The coalition says the labor shortage has caused shipping companies to divert cargo to other ports on the East Coast rather than cope with the delays for delivering cargo.
The Waterfront Commission, a specialized agency created in 1953 to fight
corruption on the docks in New York
and New Jersey, licenses workers and
regulates the size of the workforce in the port.
“We are the only port in America that has to jump through such bureaucratic hoops just to fill one empty position, let alone the hundreds that remain,” said John Nardi, president of the New York Shipping Association, which represents marine terminals and shipping lines
that employ longshoremen. “We already are seeing cargo being rerouted to
other ports due to the delays in hiring skilled labor. There is a better way.
Like every business we need a right-sized work force of well-trained, diverse and capable individuals as determined by the employer, not a quasigovernmental agency.”
The Waterfront Commission rebutted the charge and said Nardi’s statement “is simply an attempt to deflect the public pressure that the commission has been exerting on the NYSA to fill labor shortages.”
The commission said it is “dedicated to putting people to work in the port, in a fair and nondiscriminatory manner, as quickly as possible” and “has not been the source of any labor shortages or slowdowns in the port. To the contrary, we have openly criticized the glacial pace at which the NYSA is moving with regard to getting longshoremen sponsored and working in the port.”
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said it has made significant improvements in moving cargo on and off port terminals since the beginning of the year, when snow and historic low temperatures forced terminals to suspend operations, resulting in cargo backups.
It said at the peak of port-wide congestion in February, the average number of gate moves per week for all terminals was 36,400, but that in mid-March, the average increased to more than 60,000 cargo moves. Dwell time (the average time cargo loads stay at the port), which averages 4.2 days, peaked at 8.1 days in January and fell to an average of six days.
The port authority said 2,000 new chassis were brought into the region from other ports to deal with an equipment shortage and that by mid-March the number of chassis that had been out of service were reduced by more than 30 percent.
This article was published in the May 2014 issue of American Shipper.