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Florida Legislature closer to banning local heat protections for outdoor workers

Construction worker Ruben Roman drips water on his head during his lunch break, Thursday, July 24, 2014 at at job site in Phoenix. With Phoenix-area daytime highs hovering around 110 degrees, outdoor activity is minimal throughout the Valley.
Matt York
OSHA’s “general duty rule” requires employers to provide workplaces that are “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” The agency lists extreme heat as one of those hazards. But workers-rights advocates say it’s rarely enforced.

As Miami-Dade considers new standards for outdoor workers, Florida lawmakers look set to pass legislation which would make local heat protections "void and prohibited."

On extremely hot days, many outdoor workers in Florida often lack access to three basic accommodations: water, shade and rest breaks.

“The majority of our field workers suffer from heat stress,” explained Teresa Choc, an organizer with the Farmworker Association of Florida in Homestead. “We’re the ones who put the food on everyone’s table, and it’s through arduous work in the sun.”

For years, the association and other workers-rights groups have urged local and state government leaders to enact heat safety protections for people who work outside. They’ve made some progress in Miami-Dade County, where county commissioners are considering new rules for local agriculture and construction businesses.

But Republicans in the state Legislature are trying to stop cities and counties from adopting local workplace heat standards.

Under legislation under consideration, local governments would lose the ability to guarantee outdoor workers access to shade, clean water, rest breaks and even heat safety training. Instead state lawmakers would have the sole authority to determine heat protection standards that go beyond federal rules.

“There are businesses operating at all four corners of the state, and the intent is to make sure that we don’t have a patchwork of regulation,” said state Sen. Jay Trumbull (R-Panama City), the Senate bill’s sponsor.

“The majority of our field workers suffer from heat stress. We’re the ones who put the food on everyone’s table, and it’s through arduous work in the sun.” Teresa Choc, an organizer with the Farmworker Association of Florida.

Republican state Rep. Tiffany Esposito of Fort Myers is sponsoring the House version of the bill (HB 433), which has passed all its committee stops along party lines.

On Thursday, a series of amendments failed or were withdrawn, including one that would allow local governments to require employers to post OSHA information on preventing, recognizing and responding to heat illnesses.

“It is absolutely asinine that we have legislators in Tallahassee dictating what local communities should be deciding in their own backyards,” said Esteban Wood, policy director for WeCount, a nonprofit that advocates for immigrant workers in South Florida.

“We need to be incredibly responsive to protecting the health and safety of the workers who grow our food, who build our cities, who keep our economies running.”

If passed, not only would the legislation make local heat protection measures "void and prohibited" — it would also delay the state’s authority to enact its own heat standards until 2028.

“We’re going to follow OSHA’s rule,” Trumbull said, referring to the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

OSHA’s “general duty rule” requires employers to provide workplaces that are “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” The agency lists extreme heat as one of those hazards.

But workers-rights advocates say it’s rarely enforced.

“They simply do not have the resources or the manpower to be able to investigate every farm, field and construction site in the state,” argued Wood, of WeCount. “We don’t have an OSHA field office in Miami-Dade County, the closest OSHA field office is in Fort Lauderdale.”

Farmworkers urge state lawmakers to vote ‘no’

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who work outdoors are at an increased risk of developing a heat-related illness, such as dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, fainting, kidney problems and heatstroke.

Several immigrant workers told WLRN that they know people who’ve died while working in the heat.

Mirella Estrada Garcia, 48, harvests tomatoes and peppers on farms in North Carolina and South Florida. Garcia remembers a time when a young man from her group died while working.

“He was lying on the ground and looked very bad. We quickly called 911,” she said. “By the time they arrived, the young man was no longer showing vital signs.”

She says the man suffered from blood sugar problems, which can increase the risk of developing heat illness. Heart disease, obesity, diabetes and certain medications can also increase the risk.

Last summer, a Guatemalan man in his late 20s died from heatstroke while harvesting lychee at a farm in Homestead.

The temperature exceeded 110 degrees, said Choc, the farmworkers association organizer. “This was a young person whose life was lost senselessly,” she said, speaking in Spanish. “He communicated to his employer that he wasn’t feeling good, but with no protections, the employer paid no mind.”

Choc says she learned about what happened to the young man from one of his co-workers, who told her he tried to help him before he died.

“The boss, of course, saw what happened and told them to hurry up and get back to work. Then his co-worker said, ‘Look, rest and drink water, and take some ice,’” she said. “His co-worker went to get more water and ice for him. The young man took off his shirt, and was looking for shade when he collapsed and fell to the ground. When his colleague returned with the ice, he found him dead.”

Iris Godinez, the young man’s cousin, said nobody expected him to die because he was so young. “He helped take care of me when I moved to Florida and didn’t know anybody,” she told WLRN, crying as she spoke.

Godinez joined several members of the Farmworkers Association of Florida when they traveled to the state Capitol last week to speak out against the bill. The group visited the offices of House Commerce Committee members and dropped off letters with information about the need for heat protections.

At the top of the page are the words: “PLEASE VOTE NO” next to the bill number. Several lines down, the letter states emphatically: “WORKERS HAVE DIED”

The next morning, the committee passed the workplace heat preemption bill along party lines. It is next up for discussion by the full chamber.

Miami-Dade considers heat safety protections

Miami-Dade County already estimates on average 34 people die from heat-related illness every year – and last year was the hottest on record for Miami, according to the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric and Earth Science.

It was during the height of that heat wave that a proposal to protect workers was first taken up by county commissioners. The proposed ordinance would provide thousands of construction and agriculture workers with heat safety protections.

“As elected officials, we have a moral duty to protect our most vulnerable constituents, and this Miami-Dade heat standard will do just that,” said County Commissioner Marleine Bastien, who co-sponsored the proposed ordinance, during a commission meeting last fall. “We have seen record, I mean record-shattering heat.”

On days when the temperature reaches 95 degrees or hotter, the proposed ordinance would require employers to provide farm and construction workers with drinking water, access to shade and paid 10-minute rest break every two hours.

It would also require heat illness prevention training for employees. And employers must timely respond with first aid if a worker shows signs of extreme heat illness, such as fainting, vomiting, very high body temperatures, disorientation or convulsions.

Palmetto Bay resident Pedro Trejos, 41, has worked in construction for about two decades. His typical shift is eight hours, with one 30-minute lunch break. Some of the subcontractors that have employed him don’t offer water or rest breaks, Trejos explained in Spanish. And taking time off due to heat-related illness is risky, he explained.

“The biggest issue I see is that if you want to take an involuntary leave-of-absence for yourself to cool off if you don’t get permission from the boss and you don’t show up for one or two days, the boss will fire you,” Trejos said. “They fire you almost in anticipation of a health problem surfacing later.”

Trejos, who is an activist with WeCount, says he often takes Motrin to relieve frequent headaches on the job. His co-workers also frequently suffer from headaches, migraines and nose bleeds. And he’s also witnessed instances where asking for water or breaks has cost employees their jobs.

“One time a boss was being really excessive,” Trejos said. “And he said we couldn’t get down from the roof in the middle of the workday in order to drink water. And so I said, ‘You know we have rights in this country as workers, and what the boss did was he said, ‘You know what, here’s your money for the time that you worked, but now is your time to leave.’”

Trejos is from Nicaragua, and he often works 50 hours a week without overtime pay to help support his mother in his home country and his two children in Florida.

“I’m always thinking about the future,” he said. “I don’t even know if I will be able to meet and see my grandchildren.”

On March 19, Miami-Dade commissioners are scheduled to bring the heat safety proposal to a vote. But since the proposal state legislation would supersede it, it is unclear if the county vote would still go ahead if Florida lawmakers pass their bill.

GOP support for heat protections in the past

Florida lawmakers unanimously passed the Zachary Martin Act in 2020. It provides heat-related illness protections for student-athletes.

“All we’re asking from these legislators this session is to follow the science and understand that in the same way that student-athletes perform exertional activity, outdoor workers do, too,” said Esteban Wood, the policy director for WeCount.

Some Republicans were on board with a measure that would’ve guaranteed statewide protections for outdoor workers two years ago. It received unanimous support in the Senate Agriculture Committee – but the measure was withdrawn after receiving pushback from industry groups.

“We sort of pivoted to focus on a local campaign within Miami-Dade County, where the political realities were a little bit easier for us,” Wood said.

Democrats haven't given up pushing for statewide protections. They introduced legislation before the legislative session that would require water, shade and rest breaks for every outdoor worker in the state. But that measure hasn’t moved in the Republican-majority Legislature.

“Corporations and their bottom line or their ability to make more money is what’s prioritized over everyday people, over constituents,” said Democratic Rep. Ashley Gantt of Miami. “And I hope people really are paying attention because every person that’s an elected state representative is up for reelection every two years.”

Copyright 2024 WLRN 91.3 FM

Valerie Crowder is a freelance reporter based in Panama City, Florida. Before moving to Florida, she covered politics and education for Public Radio East in New Bern, North Carolina. While at PRE, she was also a fill-in host during All Things Considered. She got her start in public radio at WAER-FM in Syracuse, New York, where she was a part-time reporter, assistant producer and host. She has a B.A. in newspaper online journalism and political science from Syracuse University. When she’s not reporting the news, she enjoys reading classic fiction and thrillers, hiking with members of the Florida Trail Association and doing yoga.