Customs inspectors trimmed working hours at the nation’s second-busiest container port and lines more than doubled at some of the largest airports as U.S. spending cuts began slowing transportation links.
The disruptions stemmed from a Homeland Security Department decision to reduce overtime, the first consequence of budget cuts that took effect March 1 and may lead to furloughs next month. The changes will mean fewer federal workers at airports, harbors and land borders, making it harder for passengers and produce to clear customs, officials said.
Importers of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash, cucumbers and other fruits and vegetables are bracing for long lines at border crossings, said Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas. Shipments may surge as weather and markets change, and companies rely on customs agents being present when needed, he said.
“They need to have flexibility, and without overtime you don’t have flexibility,” said Jungmeyer, whose Nogales, Arizona-based trade group promotes Mexican produce in the U.S. Plans for furloughs next month add to the industry’s concerns, he said.
“April’s still a terrible time,” he said. “The peak season for fresh fruits and vegetables from Mexico continues through May.”
The Department of Homeland Security is cutting overtime at the Transportation Security Administration, the agency responsible for screening airport travelers, and at Customs and Border Protection, the agency charged with safeguarding borders, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said at a conference in Washington yesterday.
The department isn’t hiring to fill vacancies and was sending notices of furloughs, or days off without pay, yesterday, Napolitano said. Lines at some airports were 150 to 200 percent longer than normal, she said.
Reduced overtime during the weekend left fewer workers in place, and wait times increased at some airports, the customs agency said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. It said waits extended to more than two hours for 70 flights at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and for 55 flights at Miami International Airport, without offering a comparison to normal wait times.
“Please don’t yell at the customs officers or the TSA officers,” Napolitano said at the conference sponsored by Politico, according to a transcript provided by Federal News Service. “They are not responsible for sequester.”
Under the budget cuts known as sequestration, the U.S. is trimming $85 billion from federal spending in the remaining seven months of the current fiscal year. The across-the-board cuts were designed to be so painful that they would replaced by Congress and the administration of President Barack Obama before their March 1 implementation.
The cuts may stay in place for weeks as both sides negotiate over a fresh deadline of March 27, when the government’s authority to spend money expires.
At the cargo port in Long Beach, California, the nation’s second-busiest after the nearby Port of Los Angeles, customs crews were starting an hour later than typical and quitting half an hour earlier from March 1, according to Art Wong, a spokesman. About $140 billion in goods move through Long Beach each year, according to the port’s website, and the two facilities together handle about a third of U.S container imports.
“They were using overtime, and now they have less overtime to spread around,” Wong said in an interview. “So they just squeeze the hours.”
It wasn’t clear what effect U.S. staffing reductions may have had on operations at the port of Los Angeles, Phillip Sanfield, a spokesman for the facility, said in an interview.
The lack of overtime may curtail radiation and X-ray examinations of containers, the San Dimas-California-based Foreign Trade Association said in a Feb. 25 note to its members. That means cargo that arrives late in the day will spend an extra night in port, the group said.
Managers at the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports “made it clear, certain types of cuts may be necessary,” Erik Smithweiss, president of the trade association, said in an interview.
Editors: David Ellis and Michael Shepard.