Biden orders companies to ease supply chain bottlenecks or he’ll ‘call them out’

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Joe Biden has warned companies that he will “call them out” if they fail to “step up” to ease supply chain bottlenecks ahead of the holiday season.

The US president, facing grim opinion polls and a stalling legislative agenda, is eager to avert fresh political damage from choked ports, highways and railways resulting in higher prices and empty shelves.

Related: ‘You never know what you’re going to get’: US supply chain woes leave schools scrambling to feed kids lunch

“I know you’re hearing a lot about something called supply chains and how hard it is to get a range of things from a toaster to sneakers to bicycles to bedroom furniture,” Biden acknowledged in a short address at the White House on Wednesday. “With the holidays coming up, you might be wondering if the gifts you plan to buy will arrive on time.”

Biden announced that the Port of Los Angeles – which has recently suffered a record backlog – will expand to 24/7 operations, following the example of the Port of Long Beach, also in California.

About 40% of shipping containers imported to the US come through the two ports, which are among the world’s busiest but typically operate five days a week, closing at night and weekends. The change will see the Port of Los Angeles add more than 60 hours of operation a week, almost double its total earlier this year.

Biden, who set up a supply chain disruption task force in June, said the announcement has the “potential to be a game-changer” but added: “I say potential because all of these goods won’t move by themselves.

“For the positive impact to be felt all across the country and by all of you at home, we need major retailers who ordered the goods and the freight movers who take the goods from the ships to factories and to stores to step up as well.”

In a positive sign, Biden said, three major carriers of goods – Walmart, FedEx and UPS – plan to intensify their round-the-clock operations to speed the shipment of goods across the country. Target, Home Depot and Samsung are also increasing their work in off-peak hours.

The White House expects the pledges from the six companies will amount to 3,500 additional containers moving each week through the end of the year.

“This is not called a supply chain for nothing,” Biden said. “If federal support is needed, I will direct all appropriate action. Now, if the private sector doesn’t step up, we’re going to call them out and ask them to act because our goal is not only to get through this immediate bottleneck but to address the longstanding weaknesses in our transportation supply chain that this pandemic has exposed.”

The supply crisis is driven in part by the global coronavirus pandemic as sales of durable goods jumped amid worker shortages and transportation hub slowdowns.

Thousands of shipping containers are on cargo ships offshore waiting to be offloaded at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Similar backlogs exist at ports in New York and Savannah, Georgia. A shortage of warehouse workers and truck drivers to pick up goods is partly to blame.

A disrupted Christmas featuring bare shelves and undelivered toys would be sure to deliver negative headlines for Biden, who has already lost political momentum due to a Covid-19 surge caused by the Delta variant and the chaotic withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan.

On Wednesday the president met executives from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach as well as from companies, trade unions, the National Retail Federation, the American Trucking Association and the Pacific Maritime Association.

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, admitted that Biden could not promise that there would be no holiday disruptions. “We are not the postal service, or UPS or FedEx, we cannot guarantee,” she told reporters.

“What we can do is use every level at the federal government’s disposal to reduce delays, to ensure that we are addressing bottlenecks in the system, including ports and the need for them to be open longer hours... and we can continue to press not only workers and unions but also companies to take as many steps as they can to reduce these delays.”

Republicans gave Biden’s remarks a cool reception, noting that he did not respond to questions from reporters. Kevin McCarthy, minority leader in the House of Representatives, tweeted: “While your paycheck shrinks from skyrocketing inflation and supply chain shortages, he takes no questions and no responsibility. He just walks away.”

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