Whatcom companies feeling the impact of West Coast port dispute

Jeffrey Heininger can almost see the products he needs for his company — they are in containers on a large cargo ship parked in Bellingham Bay. But he can’t get them.

Heininger operates Heininger Holdings, which makes a variety of useful items, including bike rack hitches that fit on the back of cars. These products go into big retail stores including Walmart, REI and Target. He has about $30,000 of goods sitting on the Ever Eagle, one of three cargo ships anchored in local waters on Friday, Feb. 20.

Even though the goods are just a few miles from his Bellingham facility, it might as well be 1,000 miles away, given that it could be weeks before he actually sees his product because it needs to go through the clogged Seattle or Tacoma port terminals. The two terminals are among the West Coast ports mired in the labor dispute between the dock workers’ union and shipping lines.

The company had another shipment that finally docked in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 18. It left Shenzhen, China, on Dec. 29. He said it is normally a three-week voyage, but now it’s been nearly eight weeks and he still has no idea when the container will be railed to the company’s other facility in Ogden, Utah.

“I don’t think the average person understands yet how big a problem this is,” said Heininger, whose company has 12 employees in Bellingham. “It’s clobbering our sales.”

The labor dispute is having a big impact on many local companies, particularly in the past few weeks. Bellingham’s Ludtke Pacific Trucking has 12 trucks, 10 of which are dedicated to handling overseas containers. While the slowdown started at the end of October, the past two weeks have been particularly rough, with many drivers sitting around waiting for cargo to haul, said Jason McFadden, safety and personnel director for the trucking company.

McFadden said they’ve been trying give employees other work to keep them busy, like washing the trailers and doing extra maintenance. Once the labor dispute is settled, it will suddenly become frenetically busy for Ludtke and other trucking companies that will have to deal with the backlog.

“If they were to reach an agreement tomorrow, it would take months to catch up,” McFadden said.

That’s a problem for Heininger’s company, because peak sales of its products happen in the spring and summer. It’s unclear at this point what amount of products he’ll get to the stores during that period.

“We’re sweating bullets right now,” Heininger said.

It’s also a problem for perishable items. Right now eggs can’t be shipped because they would go bad sitting on the docks, McFadden said. If the dispute drags on, it could impact berries that are harvested in the late spring and summer months.

While the port dispute is hurting the work flow of companies, consumers haven’t yet seen much impact. They will soon, if things don’t change.

“We’ll soon have big companies saying they are out of iPhones and computer tablets,” McFadden said.

The port dispute is also having an impact on Whatcom County manufacturing. In one of the cargo ships anchored in Bellingham Bay this week is some raw material for FastCap, which makes hundreds of items including sticky caps to hide small, unsightly screws or holes in walls. The company manufacturers around 75 percent of its products at its Ferndale facility, but it’s now having to do back orders while it waits for raw material for some of its products, said Leanne Akers, who owns the company with her husband, Paul. The company has around 48 employees.

“It takes the work flow from slow to overwhelming,” said Akers, adding that she expects to pay quite a bit of overtime once materials start coming in. She jokingly said it will seem like the famous “I Love Lucy” chocolate candy episode once the dispute ends.

Companies also are being hit with additional fees because of the slowdown. Companies are charged late fees for cargo that sits on the port docks, even though trucks have no way to pick up some of the containers, Akers said. Other fees include being late on sending products to stores and having the cargo ships wait out in the waters, Heininger said.

For Heininger, what’s particularly frustrating is that it’s unclear to him what the two sides are actually fighting about.

“It looks like politics and egos have taken over,” he said.

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