By Clarissa Hawes of FreightWaves,
As Miguel Silva surveyed his truck yard just outside the Port of Oakland last week, he pointed to shipping containers filled with corn and soybean seed bound for impoverished nations in Africa and elsewhere around the globe.
Silva said his customers’ genetically modified seed, which can’t be reused because it’s engineered in a lab, should have been loaded on a cargo ship weeks ago to arrive in time for the planting season.
However, appointment times can be scarce. The terminal operators’ push toward automation, which Silva and other trucking company owners say isn’t always reliable, requires drivers to check for appointment times day and night and on weekends to see if more time slots open up.
“I have customers calling me daily, telling me to name my price, that money is no object, but to please, just pull their containers,” Silva, president of Intermodal Logistics at the Port of Oakland, told FreightWaves. “I wish it was that simple.”
Silva and other trucking companies dispute the widely reported message that a driver shortage is largely to blame for the port congestion issues in California.
During a five-day trip to the major ports in California, FreightWaves interviewed multiple company executives who said they were actually shedding drivers because of the lack of consistent work due to port congestion bottlenecks, equipment and efficiency issues.
Port truckers told FreightWaves on Monday that the Oakland International Container Terminal (OICT) website had been down since the previous day, so trucking companies weren’t able to obtain the vessel export receiving list. OICT, the port’s largest stevedoring terminal, is owned by SSA International.
Susan Ransom, client services manager for SSA, confirmed that the OICT website was down early Monday but said it was still “operating the gate.”
“They expect us to fly blind into their terminal,” Bill Aboudi, owner of AB Truck in Oakland, told FreightWaves.
He pays his drivers hourly to sit in line at the three remaining terminals at the Port of Oakland. Aboudi said his drivers sometimes wait four to six hours to maybe pull one container per truck each day. Prior to the congestion crisis, his drivers averaged three to four “turns” each day.
Automation isn’t always the answer
As terminal operators pushed for automation to reduce human interaction, a glitch in the system rendered crane operators and truck drivers unable to move without further instructions, Aboudi said.
“It’s the terminal operators that are not managing the workforce properly and don’t realize that they had a problem with a computer system until it’s too late,” Aboudi told FreightWaves. “It’s often the longshoremen and the truck drivers that pay the price and are forced to sit because of the terminal operators’ mistakes.”
The president of a Southern California drayage company said he’s had to shed two owner-operators and a company driver from his payroll in the past two weeks in an effort to keep his business afloat.
“What’s so frustrating is that we have plenty of work, we have the volume and the customers, but the ports are not allocating — or making that work available to my drivers on a consistent basis,” the company executive, who said he didn’t want to be identified for fear of retaliation by terminal operators, told FreightWaves.
Prior to the pandemic, the executive said he had eight drivers. He ramped up operations to include 18 drivers to handle the e-commerce boom as consumers’ spending habits changed from shopping at brick-and-mortar stores to online. He said nearly all of his drivers are paid hourly and receive health care benefits and other incentives, while a few of his owner-operators prefer to be paid per trip. Those drivers are struggling to make ends meet, he said, as he pays $150 per day for a dry run, meaning the owner-operator is sent to the port complex to wait in line but return without a container.
“If the ports were efficient and releasing my 200 containers per week, I wouldn’t have to let anybody go, but the ports are only making roughly 130 to 140 of my containers available per week so I’m overbuilt and it’s been going on for a few months now with no end in sight,” the drayage company president told FreightWaves.
While he and other drayage companies expanded operations to accommodate increased e-commerce, the ports and terminal operators in California did not develop a long-term infrastructure plan to handle the massive container volume surge.
Warehouses are also at capacity in California, he said.
“I thought that this was going to be a financial windfall, but it’s really not turning out to be that way because of the lack of equipment and all of their restrictions. The terminal operators are in essence robbing me of my true potential revenue,” he said. “But at this point, now the terminal operators need to really expand their footprint to handle all of this volume.”
The lack of chassis is also exacerbating port congestion. Steamship lines and terminal operators have relationships when it comes to which containers can be moved and which chassis provider can be used. If a trucking company or driver returns or delivers an empty container at the wrong yard or under the wrong interchange company, some chassis providers charge a “misuse fee” of more than $1,000 per occurrence.
Some truck drivers say they have been ticketed and banned from a terminal for 30 days to upward of 180 days for returning a chassis to the wrong equipment provider, failing to understand a security guard’s instructions or other minor infractions. Trucking companies say there’s no due process to appeal the tickets or bans imposed by employees at the port terminals, who scan or track drivers’ Transportation Worker Identification Credential, or TWIC, card numbers. Often, if a carrier protests a driver’s ban, more days are added to the suspension.
Owner-operator Antoine Freeman, who owns YNOT Express, was able to make three to five trips per day at the port of Los Angeles and Long Beach complex — prior to February.
That’s when he says he started noticing longer wait times and fewer trips in and out of the terminals. Now, he’s averaging around two trips a day if he’s lucky.
“I don’t think the terminals have enough workers,” Freeman told FreightWaves. “We used to arrive early, get in line and try to get out of there before it got real busy. Now, you show up early and wait in line for hours, and if you miss your appointment time because of delays, you have to start the process all over again.”
Freeman said he previously drove long-haul for a few mega carriers before buying his own truck and getting his authority. Being home every night is the reason Freeman waits in lines for four to six hours per day to get a container or two at the ports.
"The secret is to have a lot of patience and to not give up,” he said.
Containers dumped at wrong ports adds to frustration
Recently, some of Silva’s customers’ freight, meant for the Port of Oakland, was dropped at the port of Los Angeles and Long Beach complex, which adds to the frustration with ocean carriers and terminal operators.
Silva relies on local owner-operators who follow the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s short-haul exception that allows them to travel 150 air-miles and work 14-hour shifts per day without needing an ELD.
Grabbing those misplaced containers, which is a 400-plus-mile drive each way, would add to the supply chain chaos for his port drivers and possibly put an end to his business, Silva said.
“It would take my drivers one day to get to LA, another day to get the container out of the terminal, one day to come back and another day to go back to return the empty — so that one load could deplete our workforce and probably starve our owner-operators to death and then we’ll be out of business,” Silva said.
A trucking company was recently alerted that its 800 containers that were supposed to be dropped at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were to be discharged at the Port of Oakland due to “berth congestion.”
An agent for the company sent a message to a port truckers group managed by Aboudi in Oakland seeking trucking capacity to help move the containers.
“I feel for these companies, I really do,” Aboudi told FreightWaves. “These shipline direct moves are something that we choose not to do.”
Joe Rajkovacz, director of governmental affairs for the Western States Trucking Association, told FreightWaves he’s been hearing from his port trucker members, who are tired of being blamed for the bottlenecks at the ports in California.
“I think the issues are resolvable, but it’s going to take strong leadership and giving port drivers a place at the table to air their grievances about the inefficiencies they are experiencing at the terminals to get anything accomplished,” Rajkovacz said.