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Florida Republicans Try To Block Basic Heat Protections For Outdoor Workers

Cristina Gomez looks on while working at a farm on April 21, 2023, in Homestead, Florida. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Cristina Gomez looks on while working at a farm on April 21, 2023, in Homestead, Florida. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images) Miami Herald via Getty Images

Kim Smith knows how oppressive Florida’s heat can be for workers. The telecommunications technician has spent almost 20 years climbing utility poles in the Tampa sun and crawling through unventilated attics to install cable. She can’t imagine how hot the work will be in another decade or two.

So Smith was disgusted this week when her state’s Republican-controlled Senate passed a bill to block localities from implementing heat safety standards to protect workers.

“It’s disturbing,” said Smith, 45, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “Someone is going to die as a result of this legislation.” 

As climate change leads to higher temperatures and longer, more intense heat waves, policymakers and regulators are looking for ways to protect vulnerable workers. But even the most minimal safety standards are running into opposition from powerful industry groups and their Republican allies in federal and state governments.

Lawmakers in the Sunshine State are considering an extreme step: preempting local safety measures that cities and counties might pursue. The GOP bill would invalidate a Miami-Dade County proposal that could require employers to provide outdoor workers with water, rest and shade on hot days. It would also bar any ordinance mandating heat safety training. It would even forbid requiring employers to hang posters on best practices for working in extreme temperatures. 

The state Senate and House passed different versions of the bill and still needed to reconcile them as of Friday, the last day of the legislative session. If they fail to do that in time, they’ll need to reintroduce it and try again later.

Florida wouldn’t be the first GOP-controlled state to take heat safety out of local governments’ hands. Last year Texas lawmakers passed their own bill to preempt ordinances in Dallas and Austin that guaranteed workers water breaks. That broadly worded legislation, dubbed by critics the “Death Star” bill, is designed to block other regulations related to labor and housing as well.

Republican attempts to head off heat-related regulations have outraged workplace safety advocates, who say agricultural and construction workers are risking their lives in record-setting temperatures.

“They literally don’t care how many people die in the increasing heat,” said Rich Templin, the legislative and political director for the Florida AFL-CIO. “Florida has become a billionaire’s playground.” 

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives a campaign speech in 2022.
Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives a campaign speech in 2022. Octavio Jones via Getty Images

Republican backers of the preemption bill say they want to avoid a “patchwork” of different heat regulations across the state that could confuse and burden employers. But Templin says safety advocates have been proposing a basic statewide heat rule for years that Republicans have blocked. 

GOP lawmakers have also said they want to leave the matter to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. But OSHA does not have a specific heat safety standard in place. The agency is in the process of developing one, but it might never see the light of day if former President Donald Trump, an avowed foe of stronger safety regulations retakes the White House. As of now, OSHA typically only fines employers for heat hazards after a worker has already died or been hospitalized.

“OSHA has a history of taking a long time to promulgate a regulation, and part of it is there appears to be a legal question as to whether they have the authority to regulate,” said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who for the past three years has introduced legislation directing the agency to establish a national standard limiting excessive heat exposure for both indoor and outdoor workers.

The bill has so far failed to move beyond the committee phase, but this year picked up three Republican co-sponsors.

“The initial reaction to the legislative title is, ‘you’re requiring expensive and unreasonable initiatives,’ when in fact you’re talking about very common-sense stuff,” Scott told HuffPost by phone Friday. “We’re not talking about required air conditioning. We’re talking about access to water and some shade when you reach certain temperatures.” 

Karen Woodall, director of the Florida People’s Advocacy Center, a group focused on social and economic justice, said those promoting the Florida preemption bill in her state are being disingenuous about “patchwork” rules.

“The only reason [workers] decided to go to their local government was because their state legislature failed to do anything,” Woodall said. “The same lobbyists that are pushing this preemption bill are the same ones who blocked us from having a hearing on what they say they want when they’re arguing against the local ordinances: statewide uniform standards.”

Signs showing beach conditions are seen on a lifeguard tower on July 29, 2023 in Cocoa Beach, Florida.
Signs showing beach conditions are seen on a lifeguard tower on July 29, 2023 in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Anadolu via Getty Images

Much of the support for the preemption bill is coming from the state’s agricultural and construction industries, Templin said.

Neither the Florida Chamber of Commerce nor the Florida Home Builders Association, two of the largest business lobbies promoting the bill, responded to HuffPost’s requests for comment. 

But the legislation is not a priority for all industries whose workers labor outside in the heat all day.

“We didn’t support it, we didn’t object to it,” said April Price, president of the Marine Industries Association of Florida, which represents marinas, boat manufacturers and repair services. Much of the trade group is made up of small businesses with 10 employees or fewer, and Price said she hadn’t heard of any major problems with overheating on the job.

The Florida Solar Energy Industries Association also said it did not take a position on the legislation, though workers are often exposed to intense heat while installing panels on sun-baked rooftops.

Yesica Ramirez, a former farmworker who’s now an organizer with the Farmworker Association of Florida, said local safety ordinances help protect workers in a state with no uniform standards. Ramirez has run trainings on how to recognize heat stress. She said many workers growing plants in the state’s nurseries, for example, are pressured to work through their breaks without a reprieve from the heat.

“[Workers] call and complain, they’re looking for help,” she said. “We have to explain that there is no law to protect them.”

Ramirez said an ordinance that does no more than require basic safety training could prevent deaths, and she argues it could ultimately save employers money through fewer lost work days. 

Yunier Gomez, a construction crane operator in Miami, said he has seen workers vomit and collapse on worksites due to heat. He feels safe demanding a break when he needs one because he’s under a union contract, but he has concerns about non-union projects where workers have no real job protections.

“I definitely believe they should put some type of regulations in [to protect] against heat stroke,” he said.

OSHA estimates that there have been more than 430 work-related deaths due to environmental heat exposure since 2011, but relatively few jurisdictions have laws in place mandating access to water, shade and heat safety training. Just three — California, Oregon and Washington — mandate heat breaks for outdoor workers. Colorado regulates heat exposure for farmworkers, and Minnesota has heat standards for indoor workers.  

If these politicians already recognize the crisis of extreme heat for student athletes, why don’t they care as much about the outdoor workers who grow their food and build their cities?Oscar Londoño, co-executive director of WeCount!

In 2020, Maryland passed legislation requiring the state to come up with heat protections for workers. But the Natural Resources Defense Council panned initial drafts of the rule as “inadequate.” The state, now under a new Democratic governor, just released its latest proposal last month, with more specific details requiring employers to offer workers minimum amounts of water and 10-minute breaks every two hours when the temperature is above 90 degrees.

In 2021, Virginia regulators voted 6-5 to reject statewide heat protections for workers.

Nevada failed to pass enforceable rules for heat exposure last summer, despite Las Vegas recording an all-time high temperature of 117 degrees in August.

New York proposed heat standards for indoor and outdoor workers last year, but the bill never received a floor vote. The legislation was reintroduced in January with 16 Democratic co-sponsors, but has yet to advance beyond the committee stage.

Rising heat dangers are a major concern in the South, especially in agricultural fields filled with immigrant workers. A 29-year-old farmworker in Miami-Dade County died last July after more than a month of consecutive days with a heat index above 100 degrees. The man’s family told NBC South Florida that he had recently complained of symptoms consistent with heat stress while working on a farm producing guavas and avocados.

Florida lawmakers have recognized the problem before. In 2020, the state enacted the Zachary Martin Act, requiring public schools to offer hydration, shade and heat-stress monitoring to student athletes, after a 16-year-old died from heat exposure during football practice. 

“If these politicians already recognize the crisis of extreme heat for student athletes, why don’t they care as much about the outdoor workers who grow their food and build their cities?” said Oscar Londoño, co-executive director of WeCount, a nonprofit worker center that represents immigrant workers and families in South Florida. “We think that it’s shameful that politicians in Tallahassee are stripping localities of their right to protect outdoor workers without offering a statewide solution in exchange.”

A farm worker, show her hands after working at a plant nursery on November 2, 2023 in Homestead, Florida.
A farm worker, show her hands after working at a plant nursery on November 2, 2023 in Homestead, Florida. The Washington Post via Getty Images

Farmworker Harold Moran’s bosses are literally sweating him. It’s the high season for growing the exotic plants sold as indoor decorations across the cooler parts of the United States. One of his co-workers nearly passed out in the heat on Wednesday. Yet even as South Florida’s temperatures surged near 90 degrees Fahrenheit this week, Moran said his supervisor told him that “she didn’t want to see any workers taking any breaks.”

“She wanted us only to work,” Moran, 46, told HuffPost by phone in Spanish. “She said the bosses had passed by and saw workers take 30 seconds of time to stand up and take a break, and they didn’t want to see that.”

For Moran, a father of two who immigrated to Florida from Nicaragua four years ago, the stakes are high. His headaches keep getting worse. These days, he said, he can’t even escape the heat when he gets home and cranks his air conditioner to full blast. 

“It doesn’t cool down my body heat,” he said. “The heat I absorb in the workday affects me at night. It stays in my body and makes it difficult to sleep.”

If the preempting legislation fails, Miami-Dade is scheduled to hold a final vote later this month on the heat protections that triggered this legislative saga. Those rules would provide the basics of what is “essential for our lives,” Moran said.

“With all of their millions, they want to use it to block basic protections which we need and which will only make us more productive for them,” he said. “They have no conscience if they pass this law.”

CORRECTION: This story originally misidentified Smith’s union. She is a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

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