Delays Grow for Travelers to Tomatoes as U.S. Cuts Hours

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, an initial 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.

The Federal Aviation Administration today indicated that it intends to issue furlough notices to “all its employees,” Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, a labor union, said in an e-mailed statement. In a month there will be fewer controllers in towers, and increased delays for travelers, Church said. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta warned of furloughs in a letter to agency employees on Feb. 11.

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.

‘Terrible Time’

“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.”l

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 unit charged with safeguarding borders, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said at a meeting of the International Air Transport Association in New York City today.

“Assuming sequestration continues, we will not be able to pay TSA workers overtime,” Napolitano said. “With respect to Customs, which has to clear people coming into the United States, we will be required to furlough, one day out of every 14, all 21,000 CBP officers who staff our ports of entry in addition to reductions of overtime and a hiring freeze.”

Peak Times

Napolitano said that peak wait times at major airports may double to four hours, and advised airline executives to be prepared to adjust schedules to anticipate longer lines at security checkpoints.

“There may come a time when the wait times are such you need to analyze connecting times,” Napolitano said. “We can see a time where there will be a lot of missed connections. I’m not trying to alarm you. I’m trying to educate you.”

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.

Long Beach

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.

‘Cuts Necessary’

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.

Undocumented immigrants and cargo will likely flow across the border with Mexico and into the U.S. as border patrol agents take a pay cut amounting to 35 percent from furlough days and missing overtime, J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees union, said in an e-mailed statement today.

“Agents will be instructed to stop working at the moment their straight shift ends,” Cox said.

Customs and Border Protection is reducing rather than eliminating overtime and the length of the automatic cuts isn’t known, so “it is difficult to project the impact of the reductions,” Jenny Burke, a Washington-based CBP spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

Illegal immigration, drug smuggling and border crime may rise as spending cuts reduce hours for border patrol agents, said Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, representing 17,000 non-supervisory agents. Officers may have to take as many as 14 days of unpaid time off and see their typical work hours cut to eight from 10 as overtime is scaled back by Customs and Border Protection, Moran said.

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