West Coast Ports Update: Backlog Clearing Ahead of Expectations

West Coast Ports Update: Backlog Clearing
Complete recovery is now expected before May.
Getty Images.

Workers at the West Coast ports are moving faster than expected in unwinding the backlog stemming from the nine-month-long dispute between West Coast port operators and the dockworkers’ union.

Rachel Campbell, a spokesperson for The Port of Los Angeles, said that while the three-month timeline offered by industry experts when both sides reached a tentative agreement in February has not been “officially revised,” the current clearing speed offers promise.

“At its highest point, we had 31 ships waiting to come in to port. Yesterday [April 7], we had eight,” said Campbell. “It looks like [the backlog will clear] sooner than mid-May.”

The Los Angeles Port is the largest, busiest port in the country, with the Port of Long Beach a close second.

Campbell said the directors of both ports have had to collaborate extensively during the last several weeks to get cargo moving more efficiently through the ports.

Top executives at both ports held a “kickoff meeting” in late March to focus on cargo-conveyance strategies to enhance efficiency throughout the supply chain, according to Campbell.

Another strategy that has helped, said Campbell, is the ports’ “Peel Off’” program, launched on Feb. 25.

The program, according to a statement from The Port of Los Angeles, “expedites cargo by streamlining container moves.”

“We have found an efficient way to get containers to their destination that is beginning to pay off,” said Gene Seroka, executive director for The Port of Los Angeles, in a February release. “We’re acting on our pledge to our customers to harmonize the supply chain and make it work better. Permanently.”

Some insiders say, though, that the increased speed of discharge has led to  “landside issues” as workers attempt to move containers out of the terminal gates and onto trucks and railcars.

Further, import cargo volume at the ports is expected to rise 8 percent this month over the same period last year as the ports recover from the cargo backlog.

“Progress is being made, but there’s still a lot of cargo waiting to be loaded onto trucks and trains and moved across the country even after it’s unloaded from the ships,”said Jonathan Gold, the National Retail Federation’s VP for supply chain and customs policy. “The situation is getting better, but we’re still far from normal.”

Brands like Steve Madden Ltd. and Skechers USA Inc. said they had to shoulder increased shipping costs in February to air-freight products. In mid-March, even after the tentative agreement was reached, Brown Shoe Co., Genesco and several other companies said they still expected shipping delays to affect their performance through the first half of the year.

CL King & Associates analyst Steve Marotta said he doesn’t believe an acceleration — or deceleration, for that matter — in clearing the backlog will significantly impact the shoe industry at this point.

“[The port issues] are largely in the rearview mirror now,” said Marotta. “Spring deliveries and replenishments were negatively impacted by the ports, and everyone has prepared for it by now, so the major effects are behind us.”