Hospital Assn. warns docks dispute threatens health sector

By The Star Staff

Puerto Rico Hospital Association Executive President Jaime Plá Cortés said Tuesday that he had to intervene in the labor dispute between marine cargo handling firm Luis Ayala Colón and the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) because it is hurting the health industry.

“There is great concern because the largest manufacturing industry of surgical medical supplies for hospitals in Puerto Rico is in the Asian continent,” he said. “This includes disposable equipment and supplies, masks, gloves, suture material, plastic containers, cleaning control supplies and others. We are in the last two most active months of the hurricane season with the complication of a rebound in COVID-19 that today caused 195 hospitalizations.”

“Without alarming anyone, this represents a potential service crisis if we don’t have enough surgical medical supplies,” Plá Cortés said.

The Hospital Association conducted a survey among distributors of surgical supplies that shows they are running out of materials.

“We have corroborated information which indicates that among them there are about 18 to 20 shipping containers that have been diverted to other ports or are inside cargo ships because they are not able to get off at their destination, Puerto Rico,” Plá Cortés said. “Similarly, we have an indeterminate number of containers at the docks with materials and equipment for the hospitals that have not been able to be dispatched due to the existing labor dispute.”

The Hospital Association reported that suppliers of surgical medical teams currently have an inventory of 2 to 6 weeks in materials, depending on the product.

“This situation requires all parties to resolve the conflict on the docks as quickly as possible, so there is a possibility that materials are available to care for patients in the COVID pandemic,” he said.

The association met with Carlos Sánchez Ortiz of the ILA Local 1740, who told them he is willing to release and offer priority and special attention to trucks identified with surgical medical supplies found on the docks.

“We are currently trying to communicate with the Luis Ayala Colón company that administers them, to whom we are requesting formally the release of the aforementioned cargo,” Plá Cortés said. “It is important and necessary that the conflict at the docks be resolved in the next 24 hours, as we have the serious problem of the supply companies that are not shipping cargo to Puerto Rico because it cannot be lowered at the San Juan docks.”

“The container diversion alternative is proving to be a nightmare as its cost could triple because companies charge for the space occupied in the ships or barges that have the cargo,” he said. “Everyone in the healthcare industry is agreeing that the conflict must be resolved immediately.”

The dispute, which began some three weeks ago, has to do with the division of labor.

William Marrero, a lawyer representing the ILA, said the dispute began after Luis Ayala Colón implemented a new technology system that helps keep tabs on the location of metal casings.

The new technology relies on the use of computer tablets. Luis Ayala Colón insists that cargo operators should operate the tablets instead of giving the job to the so-called checkers, who are workers who belong to another union.

“It is a matter of safety because the cargo operators [top loader operators] should not be distracted with the use of tablets, plus there is also the issue that the job belongs to another group of unionized workers,” Marrero said.

Luis Ayala Colón decided to assign the job to the supervisors. ILA complained that the job should not be assigned to management but instead to the workers. The dispute has led to a stalemate and for three weeks the parties have been trying to reach an agreement at the Labor Department.