Business & Economy

Why 80K people applied for 2,400 positions at LA's ports

A cargo ship stands in Long Beach harbor.
A cargo ship stands in Long Beach harbor.
Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

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For the first time in more than a decade, new dockworkers have been hired to work at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Some 2,400 workers were chosen from a pool of 80,000 applicants. They were selected through a lottery commissioned by the Pacific Maritime Association, which operates the port terminals. 

The newly-hired dockworkers will be classified as non-union part time employees, earning a starting salary of about $25 an hour. Known as "casuals,", they'll also become eligible for future full-time union dockworker positions through the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Union dockworkers can make more than $100,000 a year and get free health care, along with a full pension upon retirement.

About 7,300 union dockworkers are employed at the ports. With this new crop of casuals, the part-time pool will number more than 7,000 workers. Together, the workers move 40 percent of the nation's cargo coming through Southern California's ports.

It will likely take more than a decade for the new casuals to land a union position, said Chris Tilly, who studies labor markets at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

"It used to be that you were a casual for maybe three to five years and then you moved up into the permanent full-time ranks. At this point, people have been waiting a dozen years or more," he said. 

KPCC talked to "Robert," a casual who said he's worked 10 years at the ports. He asked that his real name be withheld out of fear his statements would hurt his reputation there.

Robert explained that when promoting casuals to full-time, the union prioritizes workers who have banked the most hours on the job. That has put him and his co-workers in a decade-long race to work as often as possible, he said.

Casuals never know when they might be called to work, said Robert. The ports don't give the part-timers a set work schedule. Rather, the work is assigned each morning, using a number system that can be unpredictable, he said. Some weeks, he only works one or two days, Robert added.

The unsteady hours and lack of benefits make it difficult to make ends meet, he said.

"There are still hundreds of [people] ahead of me [for a union job]," said Robert, noting that if he had to do it over again, he would have passed on the job. "But I'm stuck. I'm ten years in."

Tilly echoed Robert's description of the tough situation facing casuals, adding that some have dropped out of the pool in frustration.

"I think it's possible that some casuals will remain casual for their entire careers," he said, noting another threat on the horizon – terminal operators are looking to automation to replace workers on the docks. "Longshore work, dock work is only going to get more automated, not less," he said.

While the local ports are not automating as quickly as those in Europe, it will continue to be a reality in the coming decades. Still, Tilly said he's not surprised that so many people applied to work part-time at the docks.

"The kind of frenzy of applicants that you see for this job is yet another indicator of how rare those good middle class jobs have become for people who don’t have higher education," he said. "This is not just a decent job but a good middle-class job you can get with no more than a high school education. There’s not that many of those jobs left out there in the American economy."

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union did not return KPCC's calls seeking comment.