Port
COVID Economy

Port backlogs sum up California’s COVID crisis

The extent to which California’s — and the country and world’s — challenges are interconnected was exemplified by President Joe Biden’s Wednesday announcement that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach will move toward 24/7 operations to help unsnarl massive supply chain backlogs.

Before the pandemic, usually just one cargo ship had to anchor near the ports — which together handle 40% of containers entering the U.S. — while waiting to unload its goods. On Tuesday, there were 58 — down from a record 73 in mid-September. The massive pileup can be traced to, among other things, port closures in China, factory lockdowns in Vietnam, an uptick in online purchases from consumers stuck at home with stimulus checks to spend, and an unprecedented shortage of truckers and warehouse workers needed to transport items from the ports.

The logjam may have also caused Orange County’s largest oil spill in three decades: Officials’ prevailing theory is that a ship anchor pierced an undersea pipeline. And it apparently helped port truckers win $30 million in wage theft settlements announced Tuesday — because truckers are typically classified as independent contractors, they weren’t paid for time spent waiting in hours-long lines at the backed-up ports.

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Sailors on the anchored container ships have also been stuck in limbo, resulting in an uptick of medical issues, food shortages, violent fights and reports of depression and suicidal thoughts. To pass the time, said Merry-Jo Dickie, a ship custodian, “they do a lot of shopping online” — ironically, one of the very things contributing to the ship backlog in the first place.

Experts and labor advocates say the supply chain breakdown reflects the extent to which workers are mentally and physically breaking down.

  • Jimmy Hoffa, president of the Teamsters Union: “One of the major problems with the current state of logistics is the shortage of port truck drivers. They are not paid a living wage and are largely treated as indentured servants.”

The union representing Hollywood crews announced Wednesday that its tens of thousands of members will strike on Monday if a fair contract isn’t finalized by then — a move that would essentially bring film and TV production to a halt across the country. And the union representing University of California lecturers is holding a second round of informational protests today; if they were to strike, about a third of undergraduate students would see their classes grind to a halt.

The coronavirus bottom line: As of Tuesday, California had 4,561,319 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 69,862 deaths (+0.2% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 50,779,474 vaccine doses, and 71.5% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

Plus: CalMatters is tracking the results of the Newsom recall election, which will be certified Oct. 22.

1. Newsom admin under fire for COVID policies

Gov. Gavin Newsom and his administration on Tuesday appealed a federal judge’s recent order mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for state prison employees — a move that came less than two weeks after Newsom announced a student vaccine requirement. “The hypocrisy is so glaring,” tweeted student advocacy group OpenSchoolsCA, noting that the state’s prison guard union donated a whopping $1.75 million to help Newsom defeat the Sept. 14 recall election. In a scathing Wednesday column, the Mercury News and East Bay Times editorial boards excoriated Newsom for his “inconsistency” on vaccine mandates, adding, “The governor should back his tough talk with actions that match his words.”

The Newsom administration is also facing intense scrutiny for failing to release a report on “significant deficiencies” at the state’s COVID-19 testing lab originally due in mid-March. A Wednesday investigation from CBS Sacramento found that more than 1,300 California schools and districts have testing contracts with the lab — which currently has one of the slowest turnaround times in the state and where, as of August, a staggering 1 out of every 42 samples did not return a clear positive or negative result. Nevertheless, California’s $1.7 billion no-bid contract with lab operator PerkinElmer is set to auto-renew at the end of the month.

Meanwhile, the vaccine wars continue. The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday declared COVID-19 misinformation a public health crisis — the same day the Beverly Hills City Council restricted demonstrations near students and schools in response to a heated anti-vaccine protest and San Joaquin County voted to ban vaccine passports. San Diego Unified School District was hit with a lawsuit over its student vaccine mandate, while Sacramento City Unified voted to require vaccines for both students and staff. And Los Angeles Unified is standing firm on its requirement that all employees receive at least one vaccine dose by Friday in order to return to campus on Monday — which could result in thousands of teachers staying home despite the district recently pushing its deadline for full vaccination to Nov. 15.

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2. California leaders hit with serious charges

Mark Ridley-Thomas, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, speaks at a “Yes on 16” rally in South Los Angeles on Oct. 24, 2020. Photo by Tash Kimmel for CalMatters

A double whammy of serious charges against powerful California leaders emerged on Wednesday. First came the Sacramento Bee report that Alma Hernández, the executive director of SEIU California — the state’s largest labor union — had resigned amid tax fraud and embezzlement charges. Then Attorney General Rob Bonta announced that he had filed criminal charges on Oct. 4 against Hernández and her husband for grand theft, perjury, income tax evasion and failure to pay unemployment insurance taxes. Hernández, who led SEIU California since 2016, spearheaded the union’s efforts to beat back the Newsom recall, with its offshoots donating more than $6 million to his campaign.

Also Wednesday, Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and Marilyn Louise Flynn, the former dean of USC’s School of Social Work, were indicted on federal bribery, conspiracy, mail and wire fraud charges. A federal grand jury accused Ridley-Thomas of, among other things, steering millions of dollars in county contracts to USC while he was a member of the county board of supervisors — in exchange for a full-tuition USC scholarship and paid professorship for his son Sebastian. A 2019 legislative investigation found that Sebastian Ridley-Thomas likely sexually harassed at least two staffers when he was a state assemblymember.

3. The power of maps

A person walks past Phước Lộc Thọ in the Little Saigon neighborhood in Westminster on Oct. 13, 2021. Photo by Deric Mendes for CalMatters

Who wields political power in California — and the extent to which communities of color are represented in the state Legislature and U.S. Congress for the next decade — will depend in part on maps an independent commission is rushing to finish drawing ahead of a Dec. 27 deadline. A new state law requires the commission to keep together “communities of interest” — including ethnic enclaves — and consider public input at every step. That process has sharpened debates across the state — notably in Los Angeles, Fresno, San Diego and Orange counties — about empowering voters of color, CalMatters’ Sameea Kamal reports. For example, although Latinos make up 30% of California’s voting-age population, they’re a majority in just 19% of congressional and legislative districts, according to a Wednesday analysis from the Public Policy Institute of California. And there is no district in which Black Californians are the majority.

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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Newsom’s position on the bullet train — barely keeping it alive until he can hand it off to the next governor — is somewhat cowardly for someone who purports to be decisive.

California’s legal climate hurts small business owners: We’re being forced to fight two battles — fending off unfair coronavirus-related lawsuits while also trying to keep up with expensive, constantly changing public health guidelines, argues Edward Medina, the owner of Ramona’s Mexican Food.

Time to transition to clean energy: California must ban offshore drilling — but the problem we face requires a more profound solution, writes Justin Velarde, an intern with CALPIRG Students at UC San Diego.

Other things worth your time

PG&E’s wildfire safety triggers sparking controversy, not blazes. // Mercury News

Stoked by Sundowner winds, Alisal fire scorches 15,000 acres. // Los Angeles Times

California bullet train’s latest woe: Will it be high speed? // Associated Press

Anti-abortion activists have already sued over California’s new law limiting vaccination site protests. // San Francisco Chronicle

Amazon abandons warehouse plan because San Diego is considering worker protection law. // Vice News

A Fresno woman got nearly $5 million after police killed her son. Now, they say she used the cash to buy guns for gangs. // Chron

Inside the massive surge in sideshows — and why no California city has figured out what to do about it. // San Francisco Chronicle

Del Norte sheriff resigns amid scandals, dysfunction. // Sacramento Bee

Authorities: 2021 worst year on record for DUI fatalities in San Diego County. // San Diego Union-Tribune

New California drug rehab rules call for honest advertising, insurance and naloxone. // Mercury News

Port of San Diego to electrify freight trucks, cranes, even some tugboats by 2030. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Arvin finally achieves federal standard for arsenic in drinking water. // Bakersfield Californian

San Diego’s other bad real estate deal is even worse than we thought. // Voice of San Diego

Families in Hayward protest plan to shut campuses to help close budget gap. // San Francisco Chronicle

Mountain View to turn its ‘crown jewel’ into a car-free pedestrian mall. // Mercury News

The singular work of a California photographer, unearthed. // New Yorker

See you tomorrow.

Tips, insight or feedback? Email emily@calmatters.org.

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