February 8, 2021 10:45 AM, EST

US Dockworkers May Get Better Vaccine Access

VaccineA drive-thru COVID-19 vaccination site at the Long Beach Convention Center in Long Beach, Calif. (Bing Guan/Bloomberg News)

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Dockworkers at the busiest U.S. gateway for trade with Asia soon may have better access to coronavirus vaccines, as officials on the West Coast battle congestion blamed on shortages of labor and equipment needed to handle a record influx of cargo.

“State officials here are concerned and are trying to make sure that we get distribution to the port complex,” Mario Cordero, executive director of the Port of Long Beach in California, said in an interview Feb. 5. “I think it could happen in days.”

Rising infection rates threaten to worsen bottlenecks around the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, raising a damaging prospect for the U.S. economy: that cargo terminals staffed largely by unions might have to close temporarily if too many workers get sick.

That would heap more pressure on a logjam that as of Feb. 5 totaled 36 containerships anchored near San Pedro Bay waiting a week or longer to offload.

The Los Angeles area’s two ports handle almost a third of U.S. shipping container volumes. So those snarls are rippling across the country, leaving some companies short of consumer products made abroad or parts needed for domestic assembly.

Peloton Interactive Inc. said Feb. 4 it has been unable to meet surging demand for its exercise machines because of shipping delays in Southern California, and warned of a squeeze on profits. Canton, Ohio-based bearings manufacturer Timken Co. and Cleveland’s Eaton Corp., which makes hydraulic equipment, pointed to port problems in discussions of their supply chain challenges during earnings calls this week.

Cordero, who also is board chairman of the American Association of Port Authorities, is scheduled to testify to a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee hearing Feb. 9 about the state of the country’s ports during the pandemic.

He said vaccinations for dockworkers are a national issue that needs to be addressed to ensure goods continue to flow and the economy can recover. That means ensuring longshoremen are classified properly in the rankings of front-line workers that determine vaccine priority.

“We don’t want to get to an inflection point where all of a sudden the worst scenarios occur because it was not a priority where it should be on vaccine distribution,” Cordero said. “But the good news is certainly here in the state of California, I think the state has heard that” and “we’re going to mitigate that concern.”

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