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This customs broker is on the front line of the trade war

Bennett Purser Jun 27, 2019
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Stephan Schuetze/Bild Zeitung via Getty Images

It’s been more than a year since President Donald Trump first imposed tariffs on foreign imports. Back then it was solar panels and foreign steel and aluminum. Now more than 6,000 Chinese products have been hit with tariffs. As a licensed customs broker in Erie, Pennsylvania, Gretchen Blough has a unique insight into the trade war. Many imports, and their tariffs, come across her desk every day. Her employer, Logistics Plus Inc., deals firsthand with the Trump administration’s trade policies.

Blough has heard all the concerns and confusion from customers who pay tariffs, struggling to manage the uncertainty and costs. She listens to their stories and is reminded of her own family’s history with foreign trade, a history that includes layoffs and stiff competition from foreign steel. Read her story below.

Gretchen Blough works as a U.S. customs broker in Erie, Pennsylvania.

My name is Gretchen Blough. I’m a licensed customs broker in Erie, Pennsylvania, and I work for Logistics Plus, and I file all the customs paperwork that’s necessary to import goods into the United States.

Here in Pennsylvania, my dad worked for the steel industry back in the ’60s, and there were frequently layoffs at that time because they were competing with foreign steel even back then. And his dad also worked in the steel industry, just, you know, working in the steel mills. And so they would actually have to compete for the same job when they would call them back to work. My father basically said, “I can’t keep doing this. I need to find a different way to make a living.” So this has been going on for a while, and it kind of seems like it’s a problem that’s been ignored for a long time. So these, I don’t know if you’d want to call them radical changes … in trade policy are trying to make up for something that perhaps the government should have been watching all along.

Before these tariffs went into effect, I would go to networking events or whatnot and start to explain what I did, “Oh, I’m a customs broker,” and they’d say, “Well, what exactly do you do?” And I always had a short version because it’s really more than anyone wanted to know, their eyes would start glazing over. Now they start asking you a lot of questions about the trade policy: How does this affect me? How does this affect the country? Do you think this will accomplish what it’s supposed to? That type of thing, because they’re seeing it on the news, and now, all of a sudden, they can relate to it much better.

I always said my dream job would be a job where I could just sit around and read all day, but I didn’t expect it to be the Federal Register and legal regulations like this. I wanted it to be fun stuff! But you need to be able to tell people stuff off the top of your head, and they kind of panic, so they want an answer quickly.

Recently I had to put in some flooring, and the gentleman that was doing it explained, “Well, if you pick this one, it’s coming from China, and the price will go up because of the tariffs,” and then started explaining it to me. And I said, “Oh, I do this every day, I know what’s going on with this.” And then he started asking me questions so that he could better understand.

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