WASHINGTON – The National Retail Federation and other business groups recently petitioned the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) for a review of fees charged by terminal operators and ocean carriers when port disruptions delay pickup of cargo containers.

A coalition of 25 trade groups, including the NRF, petitioned the FMC to adopt a policy that would require additional free days during times of port congestion, weather-related events, port disruptions or delays caused by government actions or requirements beyond the control of cargo owners and trucking companies picking up or returning shipping containers.

Importers are usually given a certain number of free days to retrieve containers from ports after the cargo has been unloaded. Failure to retrieve unloaded containers after the free days can result in a fee levied to ensure that containers are removed quickly, also known as demurrage. But the coalition argued that the fees are unfair when uncontrollable events such as labor strikes or storms keep cargo owners from picking up their goods on time.

Additionally, detention and per diem fees can be charged if the chassis, cargo containers and the trailers used to haul the containers, are not returned within a specified time.

“Recent events involving port congestion, labor strife, an ocean carrier bankruptcy, inclement weather and other disruption events have had crippling effects on US ports and the stakeholders who rely on the efficient movement of goods,” the petition stated. During the incidents, storage and use charges continued “even though shippers, consignees and drayage providers had no control over the events that caused the ports to be inaccessible and prevented them from retrieving their cargo or returning equipment.”

The coalition also is proposing “compensatory” fees in some cases, provided that the fees did not exceed actual storage or equipment use costs. The proposed policy would apply to ocean carriers and marine terminal operators.

A nine-month contract dispute between the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union disrupted shipments to West Coast ports.  In April 2015, port truck drivers picketed four major drayage companies at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, claiming the companies engaged in wage theft.

Federal lawmakers moved to pre-empt further port disruptions with the Protecting Orderly and Responsible Transit of Shipments (PORTS) Act, which would have granted state governors the power to appoint a board of inquiry to investigate port labor disputes if the dispute harms the US economy. Governors could petition federal courts to stop slowdowns, strikes or lockouts at ports in their state.

Nearly 80 percent of waterborne red meat exports pass through West Coast ports, according to the US Meat Export Federation.