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Productivity still falling short at port’s newly busy terminal

Post by John Gillie / The News Tribune on Dec. 6, 2012 at 4:49 pm with No Comments »
December 6, 2012 5:27 pm

Despite substantial progress in solving startup problems, productivity is still falling short of goals at a Port of Tacoma terminal where a shipping line consortium moved from Seattle five months ago.

Alec Coleman, Washington United Terminals vice president, told Tacoma port commissioners Thursday that the surge of new business the that Grand Alliance shipping consortium brought to the Tacoma terminal is still not moving as swiftly and efficiently through the terminal as the WUT had projected.

Washington United Terminals leases the container terminal on Tacoma’s Blair Waterway from the Port of Tacoma.

“We still have a long way to go to bring this terminal productivity level to the best on the West Coast,” he said. “We are still far below our target.”

Coleman said both the port and the International Longshore Workers Union Local 23 had worked diligently to iron out the initial snarls at the terminal.

The terminal went from being a facility that comfortably handled a single ship weekly to one called on to load and unload six weekly. Before the Grand Alliance moved to Tacoma, the terminal handled one ship at a time. Now two ships routinely occupy the pier simultaneously with three sometimes calling at the same time.

The Grand Alliance is a consortium of four shipping lines, NYK, Hapag-Lloyd, OOCL and Zim that share capacity in the trans-Pacific trade. Two other new lines serving southern Europe and the South Pacific also came to Tacoma along with the Grand Alliance.

Coleman said Washington United has nearly doubled its staff. It has spent tens of millions of dollars on new equipment and it has changed the whole way the terminal is operated to cope with the surge in new business.

The terminal executive said vessel volume has increased by 325 percent, railcar loading has jumped by 300 percent, and volume at the truck gates has bumped up by 375 percent. Costs, however, have increased by 450 percent.

Scott Mason, the Longshore Local 23 president, said he too is concerned that costs are outpacing productivity increases.

The steep and quick ramp up — the port had a little more than three months’ notice of the move – strained the ability of system to increase its capacity, he said.

When the recession hit, business at the port fell steeply, but the Grand Alliance’s move suddenly dialed up the demand to above even peak pre-downturn levels, he said.

Longshore hours, for instance, jumped more than 66 percent in October over October the year before. That meant some regular longshore workers were working double shifts and casual longshore workers who provided less than 3 percent of the workforce hours in October 2011, were now performing nearly 17 percent of the work.

During the economic downturn, casual longshore workers at the local, were working as little as one shift a month. Now many are working full-time.

The local plans to elevate 80 of those casual workers to B worker status where they will receive insurance and benefits. And the local, having exhausted the list of workers it chose in 2005 to supplement its ranks, is now looking to refresh its workforce in the near future. No details of how or when those workers will be chosen have been decided.

Typically the union uses some combination of referrals from the existing longshore workers and a public lottery to pick new workers.

Regular longshore jobs are among the most lucrative blue collar jobs in industry with typical longshore workers averaging nearly $100,000 yearly with generous benefits. Those chosen to supplement the longshore ranks, however, must work as casual workers without benefits or full-time work when demand is weak before being elevated to regular B or A worker status.

Longshore workers from ports as distant as Bellingham and Los Angeles have traveled to Tacoma to help meet the demand for trained workers. When the local’s ranks are enlarged those jobs now handled by out-of-town workers will be done by local residents, Mason said.

Mason and Coleman said many initial problems that plagued the operation have been handled.

Additional land has been provided to handle empty containers. A truck queuing area has been built across from the terminal to keep waiting truckers from clogging up Port of Tacoma Road.

The terminal’s computer system has been modified to better handle peak volumes, and dozens of longshore workers have undergone advanced training to better cope with new tasks.

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