As California struggles to contain the current surge in COVID-19 cases, calls are growing from elected officials, port executives, and union leaders to prioritize the employees of the San Pedro port complex for the COVID-19 vaccine. With communities across southern California hard hit by the virus, fears are growing that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach will not have the labor force necessary to keep pace with the surging cargo volumes currently arriving at the ports.
Officials of the ILWU labor union, which represents the dockworkers, told the Los Angeles Times that 694 members have tested positive for the virus as of mid-January while 12 members have died. Union officials also reported alarmingly high percentages of positive tests among employees at both ports. In addition, hundreds of employees are on leaves the newspaper reported contributing to the fears that the ports will not have adequate labor to continue full operations.
Los Angeles Port Director Gene Seroka confirmed these issues to the Los Angeles Times. He estimated that as many as 1,800 people are currently off the job due to virus related issues. He fears that the labor crisis could impact the port’s operations. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have both been working aggressively to arrange testing for workers at their 12 terminals, but so far they are not aware of any employees who have qualified for or received the vaccine under the state’s guidelines.
Los Angeles health officials are sympathetic to the concerns acknowledging reports of community spread of the virus and its potential impact on port operations. They also acknowledge the essential nature of the work performed by the port employees to maintain commerce across the region, but their hands are largely tied. Like many parts of the country, Los Angeles is facing a shortage of the vaccine calling on the federal government to increase distribution to the hard-hit areas.
The state of California, like all of the states in the U.S., determines the priority for vaccinations selecting the groups based on danger and the available supply. Currently, they are continuing to focus on vaccinating healthcare workers with the other priority groups being first responders as well as nursing home residents and employees.
California’s elected officials are now calling on state and country officials to add the dockworkers to the priority groups and move them up in priority after the current groups have been vaccinated. State representatives for the San Pedro and Long Beach areas sent a letter to California health officials raising the concern that unless there is a quick effort to vaccinate port employees that the container terminals might begin to shut down due to a lack of staff. The mayors of both Los Angeles and Long Beach also joined in calling on state officials to speed up vaccinations for the ports.
While port officials downplay the danger of terminals shutting down, they cite massive backlogs at the ports and the record container volumes employees are being asked to move through the ports. In December alone the two ports moved nearly 1.7 million TEUs and the volume is not letting up at the ports. The Los Angeles Times reported that 45 ships were currently waiting for space to unload at the terminals in the two ports.
The southern California ports are not alone in their calls to vaccinate port workers. The British Ports Association issued a similar call to government officials also citing the critical role the dockworkers provide. Earlier this week, Singapore announced it was launching a priority effort to vaccinate 10,000 port employees and frontline marine workers by the end of January.
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