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COVID-19 Cripples LA Ports as Cargo Shipments Plunge Nearly 23%

The global effects of the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a severe downturn of cargo passing through the largest port complex in the U.S–the twin Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

That’s on top of anxiety over dockworkers contracting COVID-19 and being forced to miss work.

“Over the past six weeks, operations at the ports have been increasingly impacted by the reduction of cargo flow from Asia as a result of the coronavirus outbreak,” the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) said in a joint statement, addressing the impact of pandemic on dockworkers and operations at West Coast port terminals.

The ILWU and PMA said they are working cooperatively and maintaining close communication with the relevant federal, state and local government agencies as this situation continues to unfold.

“Our goal is to work cooperatively to ensure worker safety, keep cargo flowing and share credible and timely information that is relevant to ILWU, dockworkers, PMA members, shippers, local communities, and other stakeholders who rely on West Coast ports,” the groups said.

The PMA recently issued a safety bulletin to its member companies regarding precautionary measures for dockworkers to take at West Coast terminals. Conversations with government authorities are also taking place on the topic of handling baggage and other cargo movement related to cruise operations.

“As has been widely reported, cargo imports from Asia have fallen significantly over the past month, with work for ILWU members being reduced up and down the coast,” they said. “According to the most recent figures released by PMA, year-to-date work shifts at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach–the nation’s largest port complex–have declined…Our goal is to ensure worker safety and productive terminal operations at West Coast ports.

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The Port of Los Angeles moved 544,037 Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEUs) in February, a 22.9 percent decrease compared to last year.

“While cargo volumes are important, the coronavirus is first and foremost a public health crisis that needs to be brought under control with the collaboration of governments and medical experts from around the world,” Port of Los Angeles executive director Gene Seroka said. “We are more interconnected than ever with our global partners so it’s no surprise that Trans-Pacific maritime trade has been significantly impacted.”

“As factory production in China remains at low levels, we expect soft volumes in March,” Seroka added. “Looking ahead to anticipated manufacturing improvements, we will need to return empty containers to Asia and push lingering U.S. export boxes out swiftly. We’re actively working with our supply chain partners to be prepared for a cargo surge once production levels ramp up.”

February imports decreased 22.5 percent to 270,025 TEUs compared to the previous year, while exports declined 5.7 percent to 134,468 TEUs. Empty containers declined 35 perecnt to 139,544 TEUs. In total, February volumes, also adversely impacted by the Lunar New Year holiday celebrated in Asia, totaled 544,037 TEUs. For the first two months of 2020, total container volumes were 1.35 million TEUs, down 13 percent compared to last year.

The Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation and consultancy Hackett Associates said February shipments were estimated at 1.42 million TEU, slightly above the 1.41 million TEU expected a month ago, but down 12.6 percent from last year and significantly lower than the 1.54 million TEU forecast before the coronavirus began to have an effect on imports. The forecast for March is for container shipments arriving at U.S. ports to be down 18.3 percent from last year to 1.32 million TEU, which would also be below the 1.46 million TEU expected last month or the 1.7 million TEU forecast before the virus.

Shipments for April, which had not previously been expected to be affected, are now forecast at 1.68 million TEU, down 3.5 percent from last year and lower than the 1.82 million TEU forecast last month.

“There are still a lot of unknowns to fully determine the impact of the coronavirus on the supply chain,” Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at NRF, said. “As factories in China continue to come back online, products are now flowing again. But there are still issues affecting cargo movement, including the availability of truck drivers to move cargo to Chinese ports. Retailers are working with both their suppliers and transportation providers to find paths forward to minimize disruption.”

Teamsters Local 399 in Los Angeles told members that if they are out of work and not being paid, the California Labor & Workforce Development Agency is trying to make it easier to spread information through a centralized source. Generally, there is a one-week waiting period for individuals obtaining unemployment insurance. The governor has waived the one-week waiting period for people who are unemployed and/or disabled as a result of COVID-19.