Workers at the Port of Baltimore were gearing up for a busy summer season. Now thousands of people face an uncertain future.

By | March 30, 2024

DUNDALK, Md. — The livelihoods of thousands of workers who handle goods moving through the Port of Baltimore are at stake as freight traffic comes to a standstill after a container ship crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge this week.

“If the goods aren’t moving, these longshoremen aren’t working,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said after Tuesday’s crash, which killed six construction workers on the bridge when it collapsed into the Patapsco River. “They’re probably working now, but that work won’t last long, and that’s one of our biggest concerns.”

Buttigieg noted that the port produces $2 million in wages every day for the workers who make a living there, like crane technician Steve Rehak and his two sons.

“It’s quite devastating,” said Rehak, 61, who added that he worked at the port for 14 years. “If the ships aren’t there, you don’t make any money.”

Rehak says he will still perform preventative maintenance and repairs for the foreseeable future, but his hours have been reduced to 40 hours per week, eliminating lucrative overtime.

“This will be tough for them,” he said of his sons’ financial stability.

While crane technicians typically work around the clock regardless of freight traffic, dock workers only work when ships are present.

For Shawn Jackson, a daily longshoreman, the uncertainty is the hardest part.

“It’s the stress of not knowing,” he said of the lack of a timeline for the port’s reopening.

“The workers are concerned,” said Tim Krajewski, secretary-treasurer of the Local 333 chapter of the International Longshoremen’s Association. “It’s a family-supporting job, and they’re losing all that income – you’re not just talking about severance pay, you’re talking about a lump sum if no ships come in, period.” Most employees run day to day.

The Port of Baltimore, which includes public and private maritime terminals, said Friday that despite speculation, “the fact is we don’t know” when the channel will reopen. The state of Maryland estimates that approximately 15,300 direct jobs are generated by the crucial shipping hub and 140,000 jobs are associated with it.

Maryland Governor Wes Moore has repeatedly said reopening the port is one of the top priorities — a point he reiterated at a news conference on Saturday.

Moore said the Small Business Administration has accepted a request to approve a disaster declaration, which would give small businesses affected by the tragedy the opportunity to apply for low-interest loans of up to $2 million.

“They’re going to help us make sure our small businesses get the money they need to pay their bills and keep people employed,” he said Saturday.

Applications must be submitted online by December 30, 2024.

The ILA’s local branches will hold an emergency meeting on Monday to discuss a path forward. In the meantime, union officials are advising members to call their mortgage, auto and credit card lenders to request payment deferrals.

State lawmakers introduced a bill Friday to provide temporary financial relief to workers and businesses affected by the port closure.

The proposed Protecting Opportunities and Regional Trade Act – or PORT Act – includes support for regularly paid longshoremen who do not qualify for unemployment, aid for businesses that need help retaining their local workforce, and incentives for companies to maintain long-term employment hold Baltimore. term, rather than permanently relocating to another port where ships are diverted, such as Wilmington, Delaware or Norfolk, Virginia.

The legislation is being led by Senate President Bill Ferguson (D), who represents the district where the port is located. He hopes to take lessons from the pandemic — during which the port remained open — and apply them to Maryland’s current economic emergency.

“If we could help support small businesses and keep people in those positions employed, that would be more efficient and a better way to help stabilize small businesses, rather than having them lay off their entire team and then just hope some time in the future. that they can put them back in those positions when the channel is open again,” Ferguson told NBC News.

If passed, the measures would take effect immediately upon Governor Moore’s signature. The state General Assembly adjourns just after midnight on April 9.

Until then we have to wait and see.

“Summer is our busy time,” Krajewski said. “The coming months should be a very busy season, so we really want that channel open as soon as possible.”

Last year was a record for the Port of Baltimore: its more than 8,000 employees handled 52.3 million tons of foreign cargo worth more than $80 billion.

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