Trucking companies are pushing ocean carriers and port officials to clear a pileup of empty containers at the East Coast’s largest port that has exacerbated chassis constraints and disrupted operations.
Shippers have shifted cargo to East Coast ports in hopes of avoiding congestion that has clogged West Coast ports over the last two years. As of August, the Port of New York and New Jersey said it had handled “an astounding rise of 34 percent in cargo volume,” compared to before the pandemic.
But as shippers diverted freight east, congestion moved along with it. Vessels remained at anchor in New York; Norfolk, Virginia; and Savannah, Georgia, a week or more, according to a Flexport update last week. The flood of imports has left port docks — and, increasingly, truck yards — with a glut of empty containers.
Elliot Ballen, dispatch and operations manager at the drayage firm L&A Transport in Union, New Jersey, said the situation has made it difficult for trucks to get in and out of the port. Ballen’s company has around 15 to 20 empty containers he says it can’t return to the New York and New Jersey port because of a lack of appointments.
An inability to return empty containers on time means that companies like L&A Transport and their customers have been on the hook for high demurrage fees from ocean carriers. Empty containers must also linger on chassis, taking that high-demand equipment out of service, too.
“It ties up how much work we can accomplish,” Ballen said. “Some days we have to send our drivers home early because we don't have chassis.”
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey responded last month to the mountains of empties piling up at its terminals, announcing plans to charge carriers a container dwell fee similar to the one dangled at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The implementation of the fee has been delayed following conversations with ocean carriers, CNBC reported.
L&A Transport is not alone in having to cut labor early because of the equipment issues. The Association of Bi-State Motor Carriers, which represents drivers hauling cargo at the Port of New York and New Jersey, polled members last month and found 94% of respondents had been forced to send home workers because of a lack of chassis.
Bi-State Motor Carriers President Lisa Yakomin said the organization has sent letters to the ocean carriers and met with Federal Maritime Commission officials seeking help, Yakomin said.
“Despite these good faith attempts to work directly and collaboratively with you to find solutions to mitigate issues with Empty Returns, no action has been taken by the Ocean Carriers to address what has now become a full-blown crisis at our port,” Yakomin wrote in April 2021.
The Ocean Carrier Equipment Management Association did not respond to a request for comment.
The crisis has only worsened, Yakomin said. One hundred percent of the poll’s respondents reported being unable to return empties because of inability to get an appointment. More than 90% said they had been forced to store empties with no compensation, and 77% said they had received per-diem bills for days when no empty return location was provided.
Returning containers takes several hours if an appointment is available, most respondents said in the poll. Yakomin said at least one association member has hired multiple employees to take screenshots of the “not available” messages as proof that returns are not being accepted.
Yakomin said her group’s chief request for ocean carriers and their alliances is a sweeper ship to clear the empties.
“Send a blank sailing here for nothing else but to pick up your empties,” she said. “You've got to get these empties out of here.”
The problems prompted Ballen to add a bright red customer alert to the signature of his emails last year. He hasn’t removed it, because it still applies.
“Due to congestion and various issues at the East Coast Ports we are experiencing wide spread delays along with acute chassis shortages,” the advisory says. “Due to circumstances beyond our control, there may be times where your import/export shipments will not be delivered as scheduled.”