Executives at Ventura Transfer Co. see trouble on the horizon in the form of a looming federal security program.
Like most companies that serve the nation’s largest port complex, employees of the Long Beach-based motor carrier will be required to obtain security credentials in the next few months in order to enter port grounds. But there is widespread concern the sign-up process is not moving forward fast enough.
Only a handful of Ventura Transfer’s 30 truck drivers have applied for the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program, which begins Sept. 25 — click
to read the latest on the program. More worrisome is the fact that the motor carrier is typical of the companies operating at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Only about one in six of the estimated 100,000 affected workers have signed up a particularly troubling statistic for the trucking industry, which could lose thousands of drivers. Many could be undocumented workers.
“There is a definite possibility that there will be a shortage of drivers,” said Randall Clifford, chairman of Ventura Transfer.
While procrastination is cited as a factor in the sluggish pace of applications, a more substantive cause could be at play: Workers who are either undocumented or who have criminal histories and fear they will not pass the background checks are simply delaying their applications to retain jobs as long as possible.
Experts say nearly a quarter of the truckers serving the ports today might not meet the qualifications and could abandon the port trucking industry altogether in the next few months.
A worker shortfall, particularly among truck drivers, could stymie cargo movement through the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports. And with nearly half of the country’s imports flowing through the twin ports, that could have nationwide impacts.
Trucking companies have responded by pushing workers to sign up and even subsidizing the costs of their applications. Meanwhile, the government is stepping up efforts to make it easier for employees to submit applications.
But the real problem for port and industry officials is that it’s unclear how many workers will fail the background checks.
“Nobody really knows what the number is,” said John Holmes, director of operations at the Port of Los Angeles. “If we lose a percentage of our workforce, can we adjust?”
Indeed, several trucking firms said they had no contingency plan if they lost a big chunk of their workforce.
Still, Holmes supports what he considers the long-overdue security program and said he is optimistic that enough workers will apply for and receive a credential in time.
“We’re not in a good place, but the reality is, human nature is one of procrastination,” he said. “If you’re trying to provide security for a physical location, it’s really important to have a good credentialing program.”
Congress created the TWIC program in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as a nationwide effort to shore up perceived vulnerabilities in U.S. seaports.
After several years of delays, the Transportation Security Administration, along with the U.S. Coast Guard, began moving forward with the program late last year. Once the program is fully implemented, it will require virtually all workers at more than 100 seaports across the country to obtain a credential before entering port grounds.
But observers have considered the possibility that a portion of Southern California’s predominantly Latino trucking workforce does not have sufficient employment documentation to secure a credential.
Economist John Husing, who has conducted several trucking studies for the local ports, estimates that as many as 22 percent of the truckers serving the ports could fail the background checks due to immigration status or criminal histories. The Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., likewise, has cited the program as a wild card for the county’s economic wellbeing that could significantly disrupt port operations.
“A lot of the truck drivers don’t feel they can get a TWIC card so they don’t even bother,” said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the association.
A number of companies are encouraging their drivers to apply early in the hopes of avoiding possible problems down the road.
Kevin Dukesherer, director of Bell-based Progressive Transportation Services Inc., has reminded his drivers frequently about the need to sign up early. And the effort is paying off: The majority of his 190 drivers have applied for the credential. “We’re definitely having to push it on a pretty constant basis,” he said.
The company has not had any drivers fail, but two workers quit just before they were required to sign up, presumably because they believed they would not pass, Dukesherer said.
Ventura Transfer is encouraging its drivers to sign up early by offering to pay half of the application fee, which for most workers is about $130. Only six of the company’s drivers have done so, but Clifford said he does not anticipate any major issues.
“I don’t foresee a problem with any rejections because we do our own (background) checks with employees and owner-operators as well,” he said.
Indeed, the port has conducted informal surveys of motor carriers and Holmes said the findings are always the same: Most believe they will not lose any drivers, but they expect everyone else to lose 20 percent.
Time running out
There are still about four months remaining until the program is set to begin, but some port officials are worried that if too many people try to sign up at once, it could overload the capabilities of the program’s operators.
What’s more, a number of workers have complained that it takes too long sometimes a couple of months from the time they sign up until they actually receive the pass.
To speed up the application process, local officials have begun deploying so-called “mobile enrollment units” to give port workers additional locations to apply.
“We’re trying to find ways to facilitate this to get as many people signed up as possible,” said Art Wong, a spokesman for the Port of Long Beach.
Additionally, the TSA is negotiating a lease agreement with the Port of Los Angeles for an additional permanent sign-up location that will be more convenient for port workers. The government has awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin Corp. for the oversight of the enrollment offices.
The government currently has two local enrollment offices, one in San Pedro and one in Long Beach, which opened in December. But truckers have complained that the offices are out of the way and do not provide parking for their large rigs.
The port hopes the third site will be open by the beginning of June, but Nico Melendez, public affairs manager for TSA’s Southwest region, said they are still negotiating a deal for the site, which would be located in a building on Terminal Island.
“We’re working it through right now the paint is not dry yet,” he said.
But time is running out and TSA has acknowledged the difficulty of getting more than 80,000 workers signed up in the next few months.
“We have had some concerns brought to us about the ability to enroll large numbers of workers in the next four months,” Melendez said.