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With Deluge, Longshore Jobs Become Long Shots

August 18, 2004|Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writer

Hundreds of thousands of applications have poured in for 3,000 temporary jobs at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles -- about 10 times as many submissions as expected -- underscoring just how hungry people are for high-paying work in a weak labor market.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union was so concerned about the crush of applicants that it asked a mediator Tuesday whether the hiring process could be delayed to ensure that everything runs smoothly. The mediator, however, ordered the union and West Coast shipping lines to proceed with their lottery and begin picking the 3,000 new dockworkers Thursday, as planned.

As word spread Tuesday about the flood of applications, some would-be dock hands were discouraged.

"This is almost like going to the horse track and betting on the long shot," said Raymond Sheets, a 47-year-old tree trimmer from San Diego who hopes to improve his lot by landing a job at the harbor.

The 3,000 slots, which are being offered to help handle a record amount of cargo coming through the ports, will pay $20.66 to $28 an hour -- substantially higher than the average $8.38-an-hour entry-level wage in Los Angeles County. On Friday, the state reported that California's employers cut a net 17,300 jobs in July, illustrating how cautious many businesses remain when it comes to hiring.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 20, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Port jobs -- A photo caption with an article in Wednesday's Section A about temporary jobs at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach misidentified the Port of Long Beach as the Port of Los Angeles.

"It's very rare in this economy, particularly for non-college-educated positions," to be so lucrative, said Michael Mische, a principal at WCL Consulting Co. of Long Beach and an adjunct professor of management at the USC Marshall School of Business. "These are highly desirable jobs, with the opportunity of becoming skilled in a vocation" that could lead to better things down the road.

Indeed, it's not clear how long any of the 3,000 jobs might last. But in at least some cases, if workers accumulate enough hours, they may be able to join the union full-time.

To apply, people were supposed to fill out a postcard bearing name, address and telephone number, and get it in the mail by last Friday. The only requirements: Be at least 18 years old, have a driver's license and be legally eligible to work in the U.S.

A Long Beach post office spokesman said Tuesday that a conservative estimate put the number of mailed-in applications at between 220,000 and 250,000. A shipping lines' representative suggested that the tally could climb substantially higher before Thursday's lottery.

The number of cards may have been inflated by applicants sending in more than one each, though officials have said people who do so would be rejected.

Even the current count far outstrips the most imaginative estimates of both dockworkers and shipping company executives, who were expecting no more than 25,000 to 30,000 to sign up for the jobs.

The hiring spree has not been without controversy.

One longshoreman filed a complaint this month with the National Labor Relations Board, charging that the shipping lines and the ILWU conspired to manipulate the jobs lottery.

The complaint by Neal Schreiner, which alleges that the selection process has been unfairly rigged to favor friends and relatives of union and shipping officials, was first reported by the Daily Breeze in Torrance. The newspaper also first reported the deluge of job applications.

At the heart of Schreiner's complaint is an agreement under which the union and the shipping lines handed out 8,000 special "longshore opportunity interest cards" to friends, relatives and acquaintances of ILWU and company officials.

If, say, 5,000 of these special postcards are filled out and returned, those running the lottery will randomly pick an additional 5,000 postcards from the hundreds of thousands submitted by the public. From there, the final 3,000 will be drawn.

In other words, half the cards in the final drawing will be from people with some kind of connection to the ports. As a result, those applicants "have a chance of maybe one out of two or three" to win a job, Schreiner said.

"The public at large has one chance in about 1,200," he added. "This is a fraud and a scam."

The Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents West Coast shipping lines, had no comment on Schreiner's complaint. An NLRB spokesman also declined to comment.

Experts disagreed about whether the process was improperly biased.

Mark Theodore, an attorney who frequently represents management in labor disputes, said that the ILWU and maritime association, when soliciting applications in newspaper ads, may have erred by not fully disclosing how the lottery would work. When the rules aren't spelled out, "you subject yourself to liability," he said.

But Jerry Hunter, who served as a general counsel of the NLRB in the early 1990s, said that it would be difficult to prove that the process favored those running the lottery, when all of the postcards have been given out to people not formally associated with the union or the companies.

Applicant Sheets was miffed when told about Schreiner's allegations. "It makes me feel very discouraged," he said. "It was supposed to be an even, fair drawing. Why did I even bother?"

In all, the ILWU and shipping lines expect to select 12,000 to 14,000 people out of the lottery. That way, they'll have extra bodies available in case some of the initial 3,000 winners don't pass their physicals or drug tests -- or aren't up to the grueling task of lashing 40-foot-long shipping containers so they don't shift around at sea.

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