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Pacific Northwest Businesses Hurt By West Coast Ports Disruption


Work has resumed at ports here on the west coast. Nine months of slowdowns and work stoppages are over. That's because of a labor dispute between a dock workers' union and employers. The trouble went on so long that it snarled trans-Pacific trade, and a five-year contract will not immediately return business to normal.


The union has to win back the faith of manufacturers and retailers. And those manufacturers and retailers have to gain back the confidence of their customers. And before all that, there's the built-up congestion to deal with.

MONTAGNE: That's a huge backlog of goods that needs to be offloaded - and quickly. Some of the produce is going bad. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson has the story.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: Farmers in Oregon and Washington say they haven't been able to move their goods to market. Apple producers say they've lost out on millions of dollars in sales. And some of the region's beef producers are running low on freezer space, meaning they could end up just giving the meat away.

GEOFF HORNING: What they were intending to ship in December is still sitting at the port.

WILSON: That's Geoff Horning, executive director of the Agri-Business Council of Oregon, and he's talking about hay farmers.

HORNING: The problem with the hay component is that the dairies or the beef producers or whoever wants that hay and straw in the Asian market - they have animals they need to feed. And if their customers are not receiving their product, they're going to start looking for other avenues to get that product.

WILSON: Agriculture is a $5 billion industry in Oregon, and 40 percent of what's grown in the state is shipped outside of the country. Even though there's a tentative labor agreement at west coast ports, farmers in Oregon and Washington still have goods waiting to be shipped. And it's not just agriculture in the Pacific Northwest that's had trouble over the last several months. Retailers selling tires, furniture, clothing have all had a hard time getting goods through the ports. Nick Vyas is a supply chain expert at the University of Southern California.

NICK VYAS: We bring in through west coast about 40 percent of the goods and services that's consumed in our country.

WILSON: And that means it's going to take time to sort things out.

VYAS: I would anticipate that it'll take us a couple of months at minimum to get back into the rhythm of having cargos unloaded in timely fashion and goods being in the proper point.

WILSON: Vyas says that's in part because of the backlog of goods already the ports but also, he says, because some retailers and manufacturers put off shipping products at all until work at west coast ports resumed.

DAVID KAHL: Hey, Kevin, Eric - FedEx is here.

WILSON: David Kahl is president and founder of ErgoDepot, which sells a popular stand-up desk. Kahl says the FedEx truck is a welcome sight at the company's distribution center in Portland. Lately, there hasn't been much to ship. That's because while he designs them from here, they're manufactured in Asia and then shipped back to Portland for distribution around the U.S.

KAHL: We have nothing on the shelves to be able to offer to customers to sell. We have less than half of the inventory we should be having right now here.

WILSON: Still, not every part of Kahl's warehouse is empty. The company also sells chairs which it imports from Europe.

KAHL: We've got plenty of stuff because this is coming in from the other side of the country. And so as you can see over here in the seating side of our distribution center, we're well-stocked on things.

WILSON: The lengthy shutdown means some carriers and shippers may avoid west coast ports in the future. That's the concern of Bill Wyatt. He's the executive director of Oregon's only international container port in Portland.

BILL WYATT: The west coast is really going to start losing volume permanently. It's not reliable.

WILSON: And that reputation is something that could end up hurting west coast businesses and ports even more than the labor dispute. For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.