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Big US businesses pledge to extend working hours to ease supply chain backlogs

The Biden administration has secured pledges from Walmart, UPS and FedEx to extend their working hours in a bid to ease supply chain bottlenecks that are weighing down the US and global economic recoveries.

According to a senior White House official, the three companies will on Wednesday announce a move towards a round-the-clock, seven-day-week model as part of a broader effort to help clear the mismatches between booming demand and lagging supply and alleviate shortages.

The commitments from corporate America were expected ahead of a White House summit called by US president Joe Biden, who will meet business leaders, port and freight executives, and union officials to discuss the strained state of global supply chains.

“The supply chain is essentially in the hands of the private sector so we need the private sector to step up to help solve these problems,” said a senior Biden administration official.

“UPS and FedEx alone combined shipped 40 per cent of American packages by volume in 2020. By taking these steps they are saying to the rest of the supply chain: ‘You need to move too. Let’s step it up’,” the official added, singling out commitments made by Target, Home Depot and Samsung to move more containers out of the ports.

The Biden administration has also been pushing rail freight companies, trucking groups and ports to increase their own capacity to meet rising demand. Many have struggled to find enough staff, however, and the scarcity of warehouse space near the ports has exacerbated the bottlenecks.

The senior administration official said the Port of Long Beach in California had taken steps towards operating on a 24/7 schedule about three weeks ago, while the neighbouring Port of Los Angeles had decided to match that, with the critical backing of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

“It is up to the terminal operators to actually open up those hours and book the cargo movements in the off hours, so labour has pledged that they will be there. We know that they’re committed to doing this,” the official said.

The move by the White House to more aggressively push corporate America to boost hours and capacity comes amid growing concern that the economic recovery will be stymied by an extended period of supply chain bottlenecks that could also contribute to rising inflationary pressures.

In an interview with CBS on Tuesday, Janet Yellen, the US Treasury secretary, said supply chains were “very stressed”, noting that “close to 100 ships” were docked outside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach “waiting to unload goods”. But she was also confident that the problems would be resolved.

“There may be isolated shortages of goods and services in the coming months. But there is an ample supply of goods. And I think there’s no reason for consumers to panic about the absence of goods that they’re gonna want to acquire at Christmas,” Yellen said.

According to a fact sheet distributed by the White House, Walmart is specifically pledging to increase its use of night-time hours “significantly”, raising its “throughput” — or capacity — by “as much as 50 per cent over the next several weeks”.

UPS has vowed to move ahead with round-the-clock operations and more data sharing with ports. FedEx said it would make changes allowing it to double the volume of cargo moving out of ports at night.

Biden’s focus on supply chains has gradually intensified over the course of the year, as it has become a source of weakness for an otherwise strong, stimulus-fuelled US economic recovery, and also a potential point of political vulnerability for Democrats ahead of the midterm elections next year.

In June, the president created a task force to deal with supply chain troubles in areas ranging from semiconductors to rare earths and pharmaceutical ingredients. But the supply chain crunch has now broadened out to other more basic consumer goods, leading to additional pressure on corporate America to help clear the backlogs.

Additional reporting by ​Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson

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