A federal mediator has stepped in to help resolve the stalled West Coast port labor negotiations.

Since early November, slowdowns and congestion on the docks have cost produce exporters and importers millions of dollars in delays or canceled orders.

The U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service entered the picture Jan. 5 at the request of both labor and management. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union and Pacific Maritime Association have been without a contract at 29 ports since July 1.

Mediator Scot Beckenbaugh, the service’s deputy director, was assigned to help secure a new contract.

“The announcement shows that both sides understand the importance of arriving at a contract settlement,” Port of Oakland executive director Chris Lytle said in a news release. “The impasse has affected port operations up and down the West Coast and the sooner it’s resolved, the sooner we can resume the normal flow of trade in and out of the U.S.”

The Agriculture Transportation Coalition welcomed federal mediation, but cautioned that the issues at stake are substantial.

“(We) seek from this mediation, not just any new contract between the ILWU and PMA,” a coalition statement said. “While that would provide temporary relief, it would not lead to improvements in port operations that are essential to meet the challenges facing West Coast ports and the importers and exporters dependent upon them.”

“So we hope the ILWU is not entering this mediation with the objectives of increasing cost of port labor … preventing full automation of the terminals, maintaining antiquated practices such as the hiring hall and closing terminals during lunch hours,” the Agriculture Transportation Coalition statement said. “(A)nd now expanding these costs and inefficiencies to chassis maintenance and repair.”

Washington’s apple industry has pegged the dollar losses for its exports at $19 million per week. Washington and Idaho potato exporters are among other segments of the fresh produce industry that have suffered losses.