AAPA stresses the need for more maritime CBP staffing at ports to acting CBP chief

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Concerns over a lack of adequate staffing of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at United States ports was raised as a chief concern at a nomination hearing for CBP Acting Commissioner Kevin L. McAleenan held by the Senate Finance Committee this week.

This concern stems from a combination of significant growth in trade volumes and container traffic, coupled with no increase in CBP staffing levels, according to the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA).

In a member communication update to its members, AAPA said that CBP’s McAleenan told the Senate Finance Committee that CBP is working to integrate greater maritime resources into the agencies staffing models at a time when there has been the “greatest sustained innovation” in moving containers at CBP.

And in a letter dated August 29, AAPA President and CEO Kurt Nagle explained to McAleenan that to maximize the security and efficiency of the nation’s port system, CBP resources must be accessible and readily available at U.S. ports.

“There is an immediate need to focus on long overdue resources for maritime ports and to resolve the CBP staffing shortages to ensure the security of passenger and freight facilities, as well as the communities directly connected to these ports,” he wrote.

Putting into perspective how dire the need is for increased CBP staffing, Nagle noted how even though in fiscal year 2015 CBP was funded to hire 2,000 staffers, fewer than 20 officers, or 1%, were assigned to seaports.

“This disproportionate approach to security and CBP staffing at maritime ports cannot continue,” he wrote. “The nation’s ports handled roughly 1.3 billion metric tons of foreign trade cargo in 2016, and more than 11 million maritime containers and over 11 million international passengers each year. Annual increases in volume and periodic surges in ship traffic have continually led to repeated dockside delays in inspecting and clearing cargo. Ports continue to struggle with balancing a CBP staffing shortfall against security threats and business demands. CBP is the frontline for the nation’s freight network. AAPA recommends working together with you and Congress to find appropriate ways to address maritime CBP staffing shortages in the annual appropriations process through a continuing resolution, an omnibus bill or an infrastructure package.”

In an interview with LM, John Young, AAPA director of intermodal and surface transportation policy and legislation, said that the big picture in this situation is the significant lack of personnel allocated towards seaports.

One reason for this, he said, is that there is a 68% failure rate for polygraph tests taken by CBP job applicants, and another reason is that it typically takes more than a year to get everything in place to bring a new hire on staff if the entire process goes well. The last reason is that when hired, a new CBP staffer is sent to the southern U.S. border, which does not help ports.

This situation helps drive home the fact that changes are needed, considering the rate at which U.S. freight flows and trade volumes are increasing along with the way freight is accepted seeing changes, as larger ships are coming into U.S. ports, which also changes freight surges.

“The modeling of how CBP is going to staff ports has got to change as well,” he said. “CBP covers a lot or terrain. In Tampa, for example, it has jurisdiction over not only the Port of Tampa Bay but also the airport, port management facilities, and the Sarasota Airport. You can see how these [CBP] resources get stretched really thin…and there is a cruise season in Florida and an agricultural season, spring break and a lot of fluid and moving parts. There are other places, too, such as the Great Lakes that have their own demands. You can see pretty quickly that the demands of a maritime CBP staff are quite different than what is needed on the land border.”

Young said there needs to be a new dynamic intact with some flexibility in dictating where CBP staffing resources need to go, with additional new staffing and resources needed over all.

And he also said that the Homeland Security appropriations committee has requested additional detail in its next budget in how maritime staffing will be sufficiently covered with CBP resources.

AAPA’s Nagle also noted in his letter to CBP’s McAleenan that in order to address the CBP staffing shortages, port authorities have utilized an array of tools to keep cargo and passengers moving through their terminals.

One of these tools is the Reimbursable Services Program, which is authorized by Congress and allows ports to pay the overtime costs of CBP personnel when additional hours of screening are requested.

“While this program enables CBP to support additional requests for services, it is not a long-term cost our ports can afford,” wrote Nagle. “The need for a permanent solution remains.”

From a maritime freight network perspective AAPA’s Young reiterated that there are many reasons why CBP needs to have the needed staffing resources.

“Resources are being stretched thin and more demands are being placed [on ports],” he said. “It is kind of like a dual approach, where Congress and CBP have to help each other and all of us in some cases. There are a lot of moving parts, and there needs to be an opportunity to make progress on several fronts.”

Hiring veterans, which is being pushed by the Federal Government and is being pushed in Virginia, is one way to augment CBP staffing levels, Young noted, as their skills, in some cases, make them uniquely qualified to do this type of work at ports. And in some cases they may be able to forego to polygraph test, as well as being able to work out of ports and not sent to the southern border and be uprooted from their families.  

The intersection of maritime and freight is not a stagnant issue, explained Young.

“Ports are out there competing and trying to bring in new lines of business,” he said. “Part of why they offer for potential new business to the U.S. is infrastructure, access to market, and being able to get through the process quickly and not having freight sit. CBP has to be there at a place to check in freight and facilitate the processes. If you cannot fulfill that commitment or are having security issues, that hurts the viability of bringing in new business. That has been brought to our attention by multiple port regions.” 

About the Author

Jeff Berman, Group News Editor

Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. Contact Jeff Berman

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