By RICHARD CLOUGH

Staff Reporter

Local importers may feel a sting in the coming months as a new port worker identification program, set to be implemented this month, could reduce the number of truck drivers who have access to the ports.


The Transportation Worker Identification Credential program, which will restrict port access to maritime workers who obtain official credentials, represents one of the federal government's most comprehensive efforts to beef up port security. But workers and businesses are concerned that a potentially large number of undocumented workers operating as independent truckers may fail the required background checks.


This would not only keep potentially thousands of local truckers out of the port, but it could create a backup of containers at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach where many undocumented workers are believed to operate and that could wreak havoc on local businesses that depend on timely shipments arriving from the ports.


There is one mitigating factor: The new federal program will be phased in over 18 months, giving truckers and companies some time to work out problems.


Still, some business owners fear disruptions.


"The competitive advantage for people in L.A. is the delivery time, the efficiency of transportation," said Charles Woo, chief executive of Los Angeles-based Megatoys Co. Ltd. "All my customers use just-in-time delivery and any kind of delay could have a severe impact on the business."


Woo said his company, which had revenues of $60 million last year, uses contracted independent drivers to deliver its 2,000 annual shipments from the ports to the company's Los Angeles facilities.


"A shortage of drivers would cause unnecessary delays and drive up the costs," he said.


A bottleneck of goods coming into the ports could cause problems for many businesses that rely on the ports.


"There's a whole logistics chain that could be fouled up," said Curtis Whalen, executive director of the intermodal motor carriers conference of the American Trucking Associations, which has asked Congress to attempt to mitigate the program's potential problems.


"If the flow of containers coming in and out of the ports slows, it makes for later deliveries and higher costs. It's an issue that needs to be managed correctly," he said.


Though exact numbers are difficult to come by and many in the trucking industry question the figures it is estimated that between 10 percent and 30 percent of the roughly 16,000 drivers operating out of the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports are undocumented.


The industry is known for low pay and long hours, and job turnover is high. But trucking firms, particularly those who hire independent drivers, attract large numbers of undocumented immigrants partly because the job requires few English skills.


According to the Transportation Security Administration, under the new program all port workers will be required to provide biographic information, be fingerprinted, have their pictures taken and pass a security threat assessment in order to obtain the credential.


At a Feb. 22 press conference held at the Port of Long Beach to promote port security, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) briefly addressed the concerns over the program, saying officials are working "to ensure that it is not so strict that we don't have anybody coming to take the jobs that we have here."


But there is still widespread uncertainty over the consequences of the program.


In its 2007 economic forecast, the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. called the credentialing program a "wild card" in the county's international trade prospects. Though the port complex, which set a record for container movement in 2006, should continue to see international trade grow this year, the group acknowledged in its report that there is a "fear that the (program) will result in shortages of port truck drivers."


But some industry insiders say the concern is overblown.


Julie Sauls, vice president for legislative affairs for the California Trucking Association, said most trucking companies only hire workers who have the necessary documentation to work in the United States.


"For most of our trucking company members, they don't see this as having much impact because they have already done background checks," she said.


Patty Senecal, vice president of Rancho Dominguez-based Transport Express, which contracts with independent drivers, said the trucking industry has been supportive of the credential program and other efforts to increase homeland security. And since most companies already do background checks, she said the impact of the program "may not be the doom and gloom that's being predicted."


Since the window for implementation of the program will last for an 18-month period, Art Wong, a spokesman for the Port of Long Beach, said if there is a loss of workers, trucking companies should have sufficient time to replenish its work force, which already sees high job turnover.


"This workforce is very transitory, drivers come and go all the time," he said. "We will have enough drivers to fill our work force but some of these issues need to be addressed."

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