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Among the country's supply chain problems? Bottlenecking at ports like Long Beach

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There is a supply chain problem all across the world right now. The usually streamlined process of ordering something and actually getting it, well, it's moving a lot more slowly. There are lots of contributing factors here, including higher consumer demand and staffing shortages due to the pandemic. And ports are one of the big bottlenecks in the supply chain right now, like here in California, where ships are idling offshore from the ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach, waiting to unload their cargo. To try to fix this backlog, President Biden announced yesterday that LA ports will now start operating 24/7. And that means Mario Cordero is very, very busy. He is the executive director for the Port of Long Beach and joins us now. Welcome.

MARIO CORDERO: Well, thank you so much for having me, Ailsa.

CHANG: Thank you for being with us. Now, I know, Mario, that you are in Washington, D.C., at this very moment, but can you just describe - based on what you're hearing from the people who work for you, what is the scene like at your port right now?

CORDERO: So to put this in the proper context, we have 52 container vessels waiting in the harbor to get in to the port, whether it's the Port of Long Beach and Port of Los Angeles. So in normal times, there is zero. So that's how bad the crisis is.

CHANG: Can you talk a little bit more specifically about how U.S. ports operate that may have exacerbated this confluence of factors?

CORDERO: Well, that's a great question because I think for some time, for the Port of Long Beach, we've been advocating extended gates, and the reason that that's been our position in terms of why we need to transform is because the rest of the world - let's take Asia. So when you talk about the epicenter of manufacturing of the world, China, that movement is 24/7, including their ports. The international carriers are 24/7. So what happens when they come to the United States? We're not. So part of the problem is the delays that happen when we have this kind of volume and limited data.

CHANG: Right. I know that the Port of Long Beach has long advocated for 24/7 operations. Why hasn't the U.S. already been doing this across all its ports?

CORDERO: Well, I think there's a cost issue - obviously, the cost of labor. The paid labor, the late shift hours, and that's an increased labor issue - 1.5 over the day, in terms of 1.5 times over the day shift. But be that what it may, Ailsa, it's de minimis compared to the cost of doing nothing.

CHANG: Well, you've just cited some of the challenges of these ports going 24/7. I mean, are these ports even prepared to do so? You know, given all the people who have fallen ill during this pandemic, given the fact that a lot of people are already overworked now, do you feel that there are enough people to staff your operations 24/7?

CORDERO: Well, there's enough people on the docks. I think the challenge in the supply chain - there are labor challenges, for example, enough truck drivers. That's an issue. Enough people who are working at distribution centers and warehouses - that's an issue. So needless to say that for this to work, it's just not what happens at the docks or at the terminals.

CHANG: Right.

CORDERO: It has to be a supply chain solution.

CHANG: I love that you brought that up because I was just about to segue into the domino effect here. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg just spoke with my colleague Asma Khalid about these supply chain issues, how they are interrelated. Here's a clip where he's talking about moving the ports to 24/7 operations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PETE BUTTIGIEG: So the best way to think about it is that it's necessary but not sufficient to help reduce some of these bottlenecks. At these ports, LA and Long Beach, just the two of them represent about 40% of containers coming into this country. So them going to 24/7, it's a big deal. But you can think of that as, basically, opening the gates.

CHANG: OK, opening the gates, but I'm assuming that could mean the floodgates, if you will. What happens if you all unload all of this cargo and then no one comes to pick it up?

CORDERO: Well, let me make something clear. We cannot be risk averse because if we continue to operate with limited gate hours the way that we're accustomed to, you have truckers waiting in line two or three hours to get into the marine terminal operators. So ideally, yeah, you'd like to pick up your cargo at 1 p.m. or at 8 in the morning, but let me tell you, if we start picking up that cargo at 5 in the morning, at 4 in the morning or even at 6:30 in the morning, you're not going to wait two hours to get into a terminal. And then as a trucker, you'll be able to move to the inland, whether it's San Bernardino, Riverside County distribution centers - and in this metropolitan complex and, for that matter, any urban port city like New York or New Jersey...

CHANG: Yeah.

CORDERO: ...You do want to get - not get caught in the commuter traffic in the middle of the day.

CHANG: Right.

CORDERO: So it's the right thing to do.

CHANG: Well, the Biden administration is talking about this in terms of the next 90 days. Is that even going to be enough to turn this whole situation around? Like, what happens after 90 days? That's not that much time.

CORDERO: Well, like I said, we are in a crisis. I think everybody agrees on that. So when you're in a crisis, No. 1, the option of doing nothing is not an option, and No. 2, crisis does bring opportunities. So here's an opportunity to really put into motion what we've been saying that we needed to do for a couple years here. We cannot move this type of containerized cargo at any gateway with the models of yesterday.

CHANG: Mario Cordero is the executive director for the Port of Long Beach. Thank you very much for joining us today.

CORDERO: Well, thank you, Ailsa. I appreciate you reaching out to the Port of Long Beach. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.