(The Center Square) – Americans buying 30% more goods from overseas has helped create a logistics crisis at ports caused by a labor shortage and practices of ocean carriers that exacerbate the problems.
Since the start of the pandemic, a 30% increase in the volume of freight coming into the Port of New York-New Jersey has been seen, Lisa Yakomin, president of the Association of Bi-State Motor Carriers, told The Center Square. The organization represents the trucking industry and industry-related companies doing business at the port.
“One would think, 'Wow, that's fantastic because it's 30% more revenue and 30% more business coming into New Jersey,’” she said. “The problem is that it happened so quickly.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, multiple vessel cancellations occurred because all of the manufacturing shut down overseas.
“Not only did it come back, it was a tsunami of freight that came back after the lockdowns were over overseas,” Yakomin said.
But the port didn’t have 30% more longshoremen to offload the ships or truckers to haul the containers. And the equipment to move those containers had not increased by 30%, Yakomin said.
The biggest obstacles to hiring truck drivers are the difficult conditions at the port, she said. Drivers used to be able to pick up a container, have it unloaded at the warehouse and drop it back off at the same place, which is called a double move. Drivers could do three double moves a day, which was lucrative.
Now it takes four hours just to drop off a container and another two hours to pick up a new container.
“It's that much harder to recruit new drivers because of the challenging conditions," Yakomin said. "And it's difficult to retain the drivers we have because of the challenging conditions."
Trucking companies must pass along higher fuel costs to the businesses they service. But payment delays by those clients could put the trucking companies out of business as they lack the revenue to buy fuel and pay salaries, Gail Toth, executive director of the New Jersey Motor Truck Association, told New Jersey 101.5.
Port drivers who work with the Association of Bi-State Motor Carriers must go through a Homeland Security background check, undergo periodic medical certifications, and have their records checked to make sure they have no drug or alcohol-related arrests or charges, Yakomin said.
A large percentage of the drivers who do port work are independent contractors and set their hours. Unlike long-haul truckers who may spend a week away from their families, port workers can go home for dinner.
Employers are stressing the family-friendly aspect to recruit drivers, she said. Job fairs are held at local high schools in and around the port even though drivers must be 21 or older to do this interstate driving. But it lets them know it is a career option to put them on that track to enter the work force.
“There's never been a better time to pursue a career in trucking because the pay is higher, the incentives have been increased, the sign-on bonuses have been increased, the retention bonuses have been increased,” Yakomin said.
It’s less expensive for the ocean carriers to make new containers than to retrieve their empties, she said. But despite not accepting the containers, they still charge trucking companies fees for missing return deadlines.
The Ocean Shipping Reform Act of 2022, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden on June 16, is a light at the end of the tunnel for the industry. It gives authority to the Federal Maritime Commission to deal with predatory fees, Yakomin said.
The bill requires the commission to investigate complaints about late fees charged by ocean carriers, determine whether those charges are reasonable and order refunds for unreasonable charges. It also “prohibits common ocean carriers, marine terminal operators or ocean transportation intermediaries from unreasonably refusing cargo space when available, or resorting to other unfair or unjustly discriminatory methods,” the bill summary said.