At the Port of Philadelphia, long-term problems and short-term personnel issues collide

Trucking and shipping experts say labor shortages and infrastructure issues are partially hampering the flow of goods in and out of Pennsylvania.

Representatives from both industries testified Monday at a hearing on state supply chain issues hosted by the House Democratic Policy Committee. Republicans, who have their own political committee, were not invited.

Democrats wanted to know if East Coast residents should expect delays similar to what is happening at West Coast ports.

CBS 60 Minutes reports that ships at a California port take up to nine days to unload, when they would typically only take two.

The good news for Pennsylvania is that delays at the Port of Philadelphia have so far been limited. Dominic O’Brien, the port’s senior marketing director, said workers typically handle more bulk and refrigerated cargo than containers, which often carry highly sought-after retail goods.

“We don’t get a lot of that kind of… retail products: computers, clothing, and televisions,” O’Brien said.

This means more space for the containers when they arrive. Executive Director Jeff Theobald said in a statement that the port is on track to process 740,000 containers by the end of the year, a 15% increase from last year. In contrast, the Port of Long Beach, Calif., Had to process 10 times that amount this year and recently ran out of space.

But even though it regularly handles more traffic than in previous years, the port said it could handle more if long-term issues weren’t in the way.

O’Brien said CSX Transportation, one of the rail companies that serves the port, reduced the number of domestic destinations it travels to from Philly several years ago. PhilaPort also claims that another company, Norfolk Southern, did not use a marshalling yard it owns in the city.

“If they hadn’t made those cuts, maybe we could have handled this better,” said O’Brien. “It’s not like we can just turn on the taps and get a flood of new cargo.”

Neither company responded to requests for comment.

On top of that, Theobald said the access roads leading into and out of the port are not wide enough to allow goods to move at a rapid pace. He also pointed out that Maryland and Delaware have invested hundreds of millions of dollars more in their ports than Pennsylvania since 2016.

At the same time, the state worked with the Army Corps of Engineers for more than a decade on a $ 400 million project to deepen the Delaware River basin to 45 feet so that larger ships could dock. in Philadelphia.

“Ours is a capital intensive industry,” Theobald said. “If we want to be competitive, we will have to spend more. Much more.”

Money to expand the state’s railways and highways is included in the more than $ 1 trillion federal infrastructure deal reached earlier this month.

These long-term problems at the port now collide with a more recent problem: finding enough workers to move traffic from truck frames to ships and back again. At one point, 100 containers were unused in a warehouse the port works with because there were not enough workers to unload them.

“Because we couldn’t get these containers and chassis back to port, they couldn’t meet the ships, and therefore the equipment flows – and therefore the supply chains – were affected,” Theobald explained.

Dennis Hower, who heads the union branch of Teamsters Local 773 in Allentown, told the policy committee there was no shortage of truck drivers or warehouse workers. On the contrary, there is a dearth of what he described as “well-paying jobs that support the family”.

“During the pandemic, he [have been] workers who want these jobs, but not workers willing to work in exploitative conditions, ”Hower said.

The main condition that Hower’s union opposes are employers who label some workers as independent contractors.

Since some drivers own and operate their own trucking equipment, they are legally allowed to be paid differently and may not be eligible for certain benefits. But in some cases, trucking employers have been known to mistakenly classify drivers as self-employed, even when that employer has control over when and how they work.

“They are not being compensated enough,” Hower said. “They do not have the status of employees [and] they do not have access to workers’ compensation.

The state Department of Labor and Industry collects complaints from workers who believe they have been intentionally misclassified, a practice prohibited by Pennsylvania law.

Some companies are raising wages to keep pace, including a company reported by Hower in Allentown that offers signing bonuses of $ 15,000 to new drivers. But the union leader said offering more full-time jobs would be a better solution.

“An employee-based model would ensure better working conditions and less turnover,” Hower said.

The Port of Philadelphia said some of the trucking companies it works with hire a number of independent contractors. But other companies, as well as those that employ stevedores and dockworkers, hire directly and are largely unionized.