Despite the positive impacts of ongoing safety measures and the development of effective vaccines, global supply chains are continuing to face unprecedented logistical challenges because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the emergence of the coronavirus in early 2020, supply chains across the world drastically slowed down for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to disrupted shipping lanes, labor and material shortages and fluctuating demand. Every sector of the economy is affected to some degree, most notably the automotive, tech and medical supply industries.
Global markets face many unknowns as the supply chain returns to normal. The impacts of COVID-19 are far reaching, and it is difficult to determine precisely how long the disruptions will last. Further, late deliveries or no supplies of materials or labor presents a number of legal implications, and many companies affected by the disruptions are looking for guidance on how to proceed.
How Has COVID-19 Impacted the Global Supply Chain?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 4.3 million U.S. workers left their jobs as of August 2021. This 3 percent decrease in the U.S. work force is especially impacting the supply of truckers and warehouse workers which particularly impacts the supply chain. As variants of COVID-19 continue to spread throughout the globe, vaccine mandates and required coronavirus testing leaves employers scrambling to stay compliant amidst being short staffed. These actions are also occurring after a year-long closure of major manufacturers all over the world.
Even with President Biden’s Executive Order 14005, which aims to strengthen domestic supply chains, issues with cybersecurity and labor resignations continue to cause bottlenecks at U.S. ports. Without the necessary workforce to transport goods across the U.S., some ports are facing an 80 percent increase in congestion. As the global supply chain grows more chaotic, President Biden met with officials last Wednesday to discuss the nationwide supply chain bottlenecks, announcing that the Port of Los Angeles will begin operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week to help deal with the bottlenecks. Additionally, major retailers such as Walmart and Target committed to increasing shipping operations during off-hours, with logistics companies FedEx & UPS making a similar pledge.
“In my 40 years of living and working in Southern California, I have never seen container ships off the coast of Malibu, and yet there they are, because there is no more room for them in the parking lots that are the ports of LA and Long Beach,” said Brad Hughes, Member of the Transportation & Logistics Practice at Clark Hill PLC.
How Long Will COVID-19 Supply Chain Disruptions Last?
It remains to be seen precisely how long the effects of COVID-19 will be felt on supply chains. In many cases, the answer is industry-specific since different industries rely on the global supply chain in different ways. However, in general, it does appear that the problem is unlikely to be resolved before the end of 2021.
“Unfortunately, the supply chain problem is not likely to be resolved before Christmas,” said Mark Andrews, Senior Counsel and member of the Transportation & Logistics Practice at Clark Hill PLC. “There are many grinches involved, from port bottlenecks, driver and truck shortages, to high freight costs and tariffs. These are compounding problems that need simultaneous attention but will take different times to resolve.”
Industries reliant on highly specific, specialized goods, such as semiconductors or rare earth metals, face a particularly long return to normal. Over 60 percent of businesses in the manufacturing industry reported domestic supplier shortages, followed closely by construction companies at just under 60 percent.
“While many project with cautious optimism a mid-2022 chip supply recovery, we do anticipate other supply chain woes well into late-2022,” said Scott Hill, Executive Partner and member of the Corporate Practice Team at Varnum LLP. “Supplies of raw materials such as resin, aluminum, and steel have become unreliable in this volatile market. Long lead times and increased prices for raw materials, especially in the auto space, are projected which will cause significant disruption when a full restart is demanded. Those who have the ability to order materials now will be better positioned to sell to the market.”
How Can Companies Handle COVID-19 Supply Chain Disruptions?
The supply chain disruptions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have wide reaching legal implications, specifically the web of state and federal laws surrounding transportation.
“I would identify uniformity of federal and state transportation law as a badly needed element of ‘legal infrastructure’ to reduce transportation costs and delays,” Mr. Andrews said. “Examples include driver hours, worker classification and up-supply-chain liability for ‘negligent selection’ of motor carriers involved in traffic accidents.”
With there being no signs of the supply chain disruptions ending anytime soon, companies can take steps to manage their supply chain operations. Potential solutions include moving from a sole-source supply chain to a multi-source supply chain, according to Varnum’s Mr. Hill.
“Since the onset of the pandemic, we have worked closely with our clients to optimize their supply chain, whether they were operating under sole-source or multi-sourcing strategies. As you may imagine, multi-sourcing and on-shoring to the extent possible has been particularly important with bottlenecks in the chain across the globe,” he said.
Another consideration for companies experiencing supply chain disruptions is handling claims of delayed delivery, specifically for those in the automotive supplier industry. Mr. Hill said his clients are working daily to remedy automotive industry supply chain issues to ensure expectations are met.
“Many of our clients are in the automotive supplier space and the semiconductor shortage continues to warrant attention and necessitates daily if not hourly conversations up and down the chain to reflect good faith efforts to deliver under the terms of supply agreements,” he said.
Currently, federal agencies and the Biden Administration are responding to supply chain issues, specifically through President Biden’s executive order. The order addresses many of the issues facing supply chains right now, including directing heads of federal agencies to conduct a one-year review on supply chain vulnerabilities.
Even though many of the challenges presented by the supply chain disruptions are ongoing, the announcement from the Biden Administration that ports and retailers are committing to increasing operations to deal with supply chain issues may help ease some of the strain. Additionally, companies can expect more regulatory actions to come later in the year from other agencies.
“Federal agencies are actively undertaking a range of actions in response to recent executive orders and other presidential direction on the nation’s supply chain issues,” said Anthony Campau, Counsel and Director of Government Regulation for Clark Hill.
“Some of those measures are already public, but more detail will likely become visible this fall when the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) releases the Fall 2021 Unified Agenda of Federal Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions, which will list all regulatory actions currently under development at federal agencies. That publication should offer a helpful window into planned regulatory responses to the nation’s supply chain woes,” he said.
Rachel Popa and Jessica Scheck also contributed to this article.