Global supply chain problems now leading to empty shelves at grocery stores

Rob McMillan Image
Tuesday, October 19, 2021
Supply chain problems now leading to empty shelves at grocery stores
Goods stuck on container ships off the coast could be there for a long time despite the Biden administration's intervention to help ease the backlog.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, grocery stores were inundated with shortages of common products like toilet paper, household cleaners and bottled water as people rushed to stock up based on fears of a shutdown.

Now, grocery stores are again dealing with empty shelves. Pet food, diapers, frozen dinners, spices and chicken are some of the items local grocery stores are listing as being in short supply.

But as opposed to "panic buying" that was the primary driver of shortages at the beginning of the pandemic, the problem now has to do with the complexities of the global supply chain.

The backlog of container ships at the Port of Los Angeles is a good indicator of the problem. Inland Empire economist John Husing said one of the reasons for the backlog at American ports is a change in consumer spending patterns during the pandemic.

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Prices are jumping in large part because container ships are stranded at ports and because unloaded goods are waiting for trucks, leading to mass shortages and delays.

"When COVID hit, we shut everything down," said Husing. "The federal government started passing out money to keep families alive, and so those families went out to spend. But they could no longer buy services at places like hair salons, gyms and restaurants, because they were closed. So instead they bought stuff.

"And where does most of the stuff come from? Asia."

Husing said the Biden administration's efforts to allow ports to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, will help. But he said that's only part of the problem.

The lack of truck drivers working right now, because so many of them either lost work or retired during the pandemic, means it's taking a lot longer for goods to reach their destination.

"The problem is truck drivers are older, and if you look at the number of truck drivers in their 50s and early 60s, it's a very large number... You don't have a lot of young people wanting to go and drive trucks," Husing said.

Eyewitness News spoke with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about the Biden administration's efforts to ease the clogging of the supply chain at ports and on the roads.

Buttigieg said opening ports around the clock was critical, but not sufficient.

"Our supply chains are incredibly complex, they're mostly in private hands, and they're largely global systems."

Buttigieg acknowledged the shortage of truck drivers, and the need to hire more of them. He said one example of how the Biden administration is working to fix these problems, is how officials are urging DMVs around the country to streamline the process by which prospective drivers obtain commercial vehicle licenses.

"The more red tape we can cut out of the process of getting those (commercial drivers' licenses), the more we can get drivers on the road, and make it possible for them to add to our supply capacity," said Buttigieg. "But I should also be blunt: truck driving needs to be a more well-compensated and more respected profession. Look at the turnover margins in trucking. In large companies it can be 90% turnover per year."

When asked how long the backlog of container ships at places like the Port of Los Angeles might last, Buttigieg said the problem likely wouldn't ease before Christmas.

"You can definitely expect the issues that we've been seeing over the course of the pandemic will continue, in the months to come and going into next year," Buttigieg said.