Vaccinations urged for Southern California dockworkers

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Port executives, union leaders and elected officials are pushing for dockworkers to become eligible for coronavirus vaccinations to prevent a slowdown of cargo moving through the booming twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

According to the International Longshore Workers Union, 694 dockworkers have reported COVID-19 infections as of Jan. 17, a dozen have died and hundreds are taking virus-related leaves, the Los Angeles Times reported.

On Tuesday, 45 ships were waiting at anchor outside Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors, the nation’s top two busiest container seaports, the Times said.

“We’ve got more cargo than we do skilled labor,” said Eugene Seroka, executive director of the Los Angeles port. “We are told 1,800 workers are not going on the job due to COVID right now. That can (include) those who are isolating through contact tracing or awaiting test results. Or maybe (those who) fear ... going on the job when a lot of people are sick.”

The call for vaccinating dockworkers collides with the overall lack of supply.

Initially, health care workers, first responders and residents and staff in skilled nursing facilities were prioritized. Now, vaccinations have been opened up to residents age 65 and older, but Los Angeles County is not receiving enough vaccine to meet demand.

Two area congressional representatives said in a letter to California and Los Angeles County officials that the flow of goods through the ports is vital to their communities and the nation.

“Without immediate action, terminals at the largest port complex in America may face the very real danger of terminal shutdowns,” Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragan, D-San Pedro, and Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, wrote on Jan. 15.

Local officials have also written to top state officials urging vaccination of Southern California’s 15,000 dockworkers as soon as possible.

There are questions, however, about the accuracy of data on worker infections, which are reported through a portal operated jointly by the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents employers at the ports’ terminals.

James McKenna, the maritime association’s president and chief executive, said the positivity rates for the ports are unreliable because workers may not be entering negative test results. McKenna also said the cited figure of 1,800 on leave is the total for all California ports and includes workers with other illnesses.

The Port of Long Beach reported last week that 2020 was its busiest year on record, moving a record 8.1 million cargo container units. The pandemic drove down consumer demand for goods in the first half of the year, but in the second half unscheduled container ship calls made up for voyages canceled earlier in the year.

Its neighbor had the same experience.

In the first months of the pandemic, container volume at the Port of Los Angeles plunged nearly 19%, but in the second half of 2020 it rose nearly 50% as spending on retail goods increased, according to Seroka.

The late surge boosted volume to near 2019 levels and 2020 ended up with the fourth-highest volume in the port’s history.