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US longshore union hiring halls adjust to COVID-19 reality

Unions are adapting to social distancing rules so that ports remain in operation while longshore workers take precautions to protect them from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

Port unions say they have modified the tradition of longshore workers gathering in hiring halls to receive daily work orders by adopting social distancing strategies that will help prevent the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) among the labor force.

Halls run by locals of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) on the East and Gulf coasts and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) on the West Coast have continued to operate since the emergence of the coronavirus.

Unions say they are careful to follow guidelines issued by state and local authorities and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to protect workers and prevent the spread of the coronavirus, while balancing the need to keep the ports operating and cargo flowing.

While widespread restrictions are in place in many locales, certain industries deemed “essential” — including ports — have been allowed to continue to operate in order to maintain the flow of critical goods and supplies. 

ILA spokesperson Jim McNamara said hiring halls remain open, but are complying with regulations for social distancing. In one local, he noted, ILA members wait outside the hiring hall and enter one or two at a time. 

“ILA is deemed essential work,” said McNamara. The union has 59 locals and 30,000 members on the US East and Gulf coasts, and another 15,000 members at affiliates in ports on the Great Lakes, Puerto Rico, and in Eastern Canada.

Hiring hall tradition

The ILWU last week said its members would continue to work ships so essential food products, medical supplies, and other merchandise gets to store shelves throughout the country. At the same time, longshore workers will adhere to social distancing and other health requirements.

“We continue to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Coast Guard, and all relevant government agencies to protect the health and safety of our members,” the ILWU said.

Union halls typically bring dozens or hundreds of longshore workers together as they wait to find whether they will work that day, and where. The long-standing practice has endured even as computers and smartphone technology have offered a variety of ways the union and marine terminals could communicate the information to workers.

The ILWU hiring hall has been a hallmark of West Coast ports since the union’s founding in 1934. Longshore workers congregate at the hall each day to view the positions that are open at the  various terminals. Registered longshore workers have first choice for the available positions. Part-time workers, known as casuals, then fill the remaining positions.

Most casuals are diligent in showing up to the halls each day because they must build up their hours to gain an advantage in securing registered status when the rolls are open from time to time. It is common for thousands of applicants to apply for jobs that easily exceed $100,000 a year for full-time longshore workers.

Reducing wait time for hiring

On the East Coast, the Port of New York and New Jersey doesn’t use a hiring hall, and instead informs workers of their assignments by phone or email. Most other East and Gulf coast locals have hiring halls, however. Some halls have modified their practices amid the pandemic by requiring longshore workers to gather outside the hall, where there is more fresh air, according to an industry executive who is familiar with the ILA and United States Maritime Alliance (USMX) safety procedures. The halls have also expedited the hiring process so casuals spend less time next to other employees, and ended traditional practices of longshore workers milling around the hall to play cards or talk once the hiring is over, the executive said.

The ILA posts on its website bulletins issued by the joint safety committee of the union and USMX highlighting measures workers can take to protect themselves from the coronavirus. The union on Wednesday issued a statement saying it is holding daily phone calls with employers, governors, and other government officials focused on how to balance safety issues with the need to keep the ports open.

“We all share the goal to keep our ports open, which helps other first-responders, and the general public get the supplies they need,” ILA president Harold J. Daggett said in the statement. “But we will use every means at our disposal to make certain our ILA members are protected and safe. The last thing we want to happen is for an ILA member to be exposed to the coronavirus and carry the infection home with him.”

Contact Hugh R. Morley at hugh.morley@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @HughRMorley1.

Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at bill.mongelluzzo@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @billmongelluzzo.