At nation's container ports, economy takes its toll on workers

NORFOLK, Va. - Independent trucker William Shoffner remembers, not so long ago, when the Port of Virginia on the Elizabeth River was booming. Five times a week, he'd pick up cargo headed for America's stores and their credit-fueled customers.

Now that's down to two or three times a week. "I've seen slow times, but this is about as bad as I've seen it," Shoffner said. "If I can't make the runs, it makes it rough to eat."

The story is much the same all across America's container ports: With U.S. consumer spending off, imported goods that used to keep ports busy simply aren't coming in, and with the rest of the world also in a deepening slump, there's no demand elsewhere for what America produces.

"The ports have the double whammy where imports are down and the exports are down, so they don't have anything that's saving them in terms of activity to keep them busy," said Paul Bingham, managing director of World Trade and Transportation Markets for IHS Global Insight, a leading economic forecasting firm.

Import volume has declined on a year-over-year basis for 17 straight months, making 2008 the slowest year for imported container cargo since 2004, according to the National Retail Federation and IHS Global Insight.

Meanwhile, the volume of exported goods has fallen in each of the last five months for a near 20 percent decline, according to the latest government figures.

It's likely only to get worse: the World Bank projects that global trade volume will contract this year for the first time since 1982.

That means fewer fees, less revenue and fewer jobs.

At the Port of Los Angeles, where cargo volume fell six percent last year, officials have shaved more than $20 million in operating expenses this fiscal year by leaving vacant positions unfilled, suspending port police recruitment efforts and eliminating jobs.

"We've been cutting aggressively for the past four months," said communications director Arley Baker.

On a recent weekday, the drop-off was obvious at the four shipping terminals that comprise the Port of Virginia in Norfolk.

At the Portsmouth Marine Terminals, three vessels were in berth and further down the river at the APM Portsmouth terminal, another ship was being unloaded.

But at Norfolk International Terminals, fourteen 270-foot cranes stood idle, as if in silent sentry. Rows of container-toting straddle carriers and yellow school buses that ferry longshoreman to their work sites were likewise inactive.

And dozens of flatbed chasses that once would have been loaded with cargo, were stacked atop one another, empty, like playing cards.

Virginia International Terminals, which operates the Port of Virginia, has halted overtime, pay raises and bonuses for all port employees in anticipation of a 12 percent decline in cargo volume this year.

They've also trimmed $10 million from the budget and cut 100,000 work hours for longshoremen like 45-year-old Keith Clark.

Longshoremen — their number includes heavy equipment operators, carpenters, cargo checkers and lashers (who secure containers once they're stored on a ship) — are among the nation's highest paid blue-collar workers. A senior longshoremen can earn $100,000 a year with overtime.

Clark, relatively junior with just 13 years as a longshoremen, made about $60,000 last year.

At the current pace, he said, he'll be lucky to make $20,000 this year.

His biggest worry is whether he'll log 1,300 hours of work. That's the threshold needed to keep his medical benefits. Last week, he only worked four.

"When my son gets a snotty nose and a fever, what am I supposed to do then?," Clark asks.

Each morning, Clark and dozens of members of International Longshoremen's Association, Local 1248, gather at the union hall before sunrise for the 7 a.m. "work call."

When the economy was good, the six- and seven-page work orders often hung from the bulletin board to the floor, listing that day's incoming and outgoing vessels and the number of workers needed to load and unload each.

But in the throes of the "Great Recession," daily work orders have been slashed to about three pages.

By 8:30 a.m., union members with the most seniority are off to their work sites, leaving Clark and dozens of other less-tenured colleagues empty handed.

"All these guys you see in here now, we're in a swimming pool. And we're all in the bottom of the pool with no life jacket on. The question is who's gonna be around to swim to the top?" Clark asks rhetorically. "We've got hope that the economy is gonna come back. But how many guys will be standing when it's over?"

One member upset about his lack of work, got into a loud shouting match with Wayne Cochran, the local's president. Cochran said he understands the frustration, but added the angry longshoreman will likely be barred from the union hall.

"I know they're frustrated and hurting financially and they're catching it from their spouses and lenders. So when they come here, the place that's supposed to make it all better, and there's nothing for them, sometimes you catch an earful," Cochran explained.

Kevin Cooper, another 13-year union member, has seen his weekly hours go from 40-plus in December, to 26 in the first week of January, to 11 in each of the last three weeks. Cooper, 47, said the lean hours aren't hurting him yet because he followed the advice of his grandfather, a former longshoreman.

"He told me 'when times are good, you've got to save for the bad times because believe me, the bad times are gonna come,'" Cooper said.

And despite the projections of an extended shortage of hours, Cooper said he isn't looking another job.

"Even on the worst days, I still want to be a longshoreman," he said.

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