Coronavirus sidelines dockworkers, adding to supply backlog
By Adeel Hassan
More longshoremen on the West Coast contracted the coronavirus in the past month than in all of last year, putting additional pressure on backed-up ports struggling to keep up with the flow of imports, according to the Pacific Maritime Association.
At least 1,850 longshoremen had the coronavirus in January, surpassing the 1,624 cases recorded in all of 2021, the maritime group said.
“It’s a heavy impact,” said James McKenna, president of the group, which negotiates labor agreements for 70 companies at 29 West Coast ports.
The twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which account for around 40% of U.S. imports, were particularly hard hit. The cases there accounted for about 80% of the 1,850 infections reported as of Thursday, McKenna said Friday.
The startling high number comes as 90 container ships off the San Pedro Bay coast, a record number, were waiting to come into port in Los Angeles and Long Beach, as of Friday. The dockworker absences are helping exacerbate a monthslong bottleneck. “Before the pandemic, you wouldn’t have any ships waiting; they’d come in and come out,” McKenna said.
The rise in cases among the dockworkers somewhat parallels the surge of the omicron variant across California, which now is apparently flattening.
Federal and state authorities have designated port workers as essential workers during the pandemic because of their critical role in maintaining the nation’s supply chain. There are 23,000 longshoremen working in West Coast ports, and 15,000 in Los Angeles and Long Beach.
The year began with about 150 new cases reported per day among dockworkers on the West Coast. By mid-January, that rate decreased to about 100, and by Friday it had fallen to about 60 new cases per day.
One positive test, though, ensnares multiple workers, as contact tracing identifies others who will have to quarantine. “It has a ripple effect across the workforce,” McKenna said.
A record volume of cargo arrived on the West Coast in 2021, colliding with the advent of the delta variant. At least 16 longshoremen died in 2021, and many more were hospitalized.
Omicron so far has packed a less powerful punch, McKenna said. There have been no deaths this year, he said, and longshoremen are less frequently hospitalized or are being released quicker than in the past.