Why America’s “Shipping Crisis” Will Not End

Why America’s “Shipping Crisis” Will Not End. By Ryan Johnson, a 20-year truck driver.

Outside of dedicated port trucking companies, most trucking companies won’t touch shipping containers. …

At a port, there are at least THREE lines to get a container in or out. The first line is the ‘in’ gate, where hundreds of trucks daily have to pass through 5–10 available gates. The second line is waiting to pick up your container. The third line is for waiting to get out. For each of these lines the wait time is a minimum of an hour, and I’ve waited up to 8 hours in the first line just to get into the port. … Ports don’t even begin to have enough workers to keep the ports fluid, and it doesn’t matter where you are, coastal or inland port, union or non-union port, it’s the same everywhere.

Furthermore, I’m fortunate enough to be a Teamster — a union driver — an employee paid by the hour. Most port drivers are ‘independent contractors’, leased onto a carrier who is paying them by the load. Whether their load takes two hours, fourteen hours, or three days to complete, they get paid the same … I honestly don’t understand how many of them can even afford to show up for work. …

So when the coastal ports started getting clogged up last spring due to the impacts of COVID on business everywhere, drivers started refusing to show up. Congestion got so bad that instead of being able to do three loads a day, they could only do one. They took a 2/3 pay cut and most of these drivers were working 12 hours a day or more. While carriers were charging increased pandemic shipping rates, none of those rate increases went to the driver wages. Many drivers simply quit.

However, while the pickup rate for containers severely decreased, they were still being offloaded from the boats. …

A large portion of international containers must be hand unloaded because the products are not on pallets. It takes a working crew a considerable amount of time to do this, and warehouse work is usually low wage. A lot of it is actually only temp staffed. Many full time warehouse workers got laid off when the pandemic started, and didn’t come back. So warehouses, like everybody else, are chronically short staffed. …

A large portion of international containers must be hand unloaded because the products are not on pallets. It takes a working crew a considerable amount of time to do this, and warehouse work is usually low wage. A lot of it is actually only temp staffed. Many full time warehouse workers got laid off when the pandemic started, and didn’t come back. So warehouses, like everybody else, are chronically short staffed. …

No one involved has an incentive to improve things. Indeed, quite the opposite:

The owners of these companies can theoretically not change anything and their business will still be at full capacity because of the backlog of containers. The backlog of containers doesn’t hurt them. It hurts anyone paying shipping costs — that is, manufacturers selling products and consumers buying products. But it doesn’t hurt the owners of the transportation business — in fact the laws of supply and demand mean that they are actually going to make more money through higher rates, without changing a thing. They don’t have to improve or add infrastructure (because it’s costly), and they don’t have to pay their workers more (warehouse workers, crane operators, truckers). …

Before the pandemic, through the pandemic, and really for the whole history of the freight industry at all levels, owners make their money by having low labor costs — that is, low wages and bare minimum staffing. Many supply chain workers are paid minimum wages, no benefits, and there’s a high rate of turnover because the physical conditions can be brutal (there aren’t even bathrooms for truckers waiting hours at ports because the port owners won’t pay for them. The truckers aren’t port employees and port owners are only legally required to pay for bathroom facilities for their employees. This is a nationwide problem). …

Nobody is compelling the transportation industries to make the needed changes to their infrastructure. There are no laws compelling them to hire the needed workers, or pay them a living wage, or improve working conditions. And nobody is compelling them to buy more container chassis units, more cranes, or more storage space. …

If the congestion is so bad that you can’t get the container back into the port when it is due, the container company can charge massive late fees. The ports themselves will start charging massive storage fees for not getting containers out on time — storage charges alone can run into thousands of dollars a day. Warehouses can charge massive premiums for their services, and so can trucking companies. Chronic understaffing has led to this problem, but it is allowing these same companies to charge ten times more for regular services. Since they’re not paying the workers any more than they did last year or five years ago, the whole industry sits back and cashes in on the mess it created.

In fact, the more things are backed up, the more every point of the supply chain cashes in. There is literally NO incentive to change, even if it means consumers have to do holiday shopping in July and pay triple for shipping. …

Regulations keep out new entrants, thereby eliminating competition

The ‘experts’ want to say we can do things like open the ports 24/7, and this problem will be over in a couple weeks. They are blowing smoke, and they know it. …

Every truck driver in America can’t operate 24/7, even if the government suspends Hours Of Service Regulations (federal regulations determining how many hours a week we can work/drive), we still need to sleep sometime.

There are also restrictions on which trucks can go into a port. They have to be approved, have RFID tags, port registered, and the drivers have to have at least a TWIC card (Transportation Worker Identification Credential from the federal Transportation Security Administration). Some ports have additional requirements. As I have already said, most trucking companies won’t touch shipping containers with a 100 foot pole.

Too much bureaucracy and regulation. In a free system, the higher prices engendered by the crisis would immediately motivate others to come in and help do the job. Problem solved instantly.