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Florida Ban on Protections for Outdoor Workers Goes Into Effect Amid Record Heat

The same interests lobbying against heat protection for workers also pushed to roll back child labor protections.

Marta Gaspar, a farm worker, covers guava fruits from pests with plastic bags at a farm on November 2, 2023, in Homestead, Florida.

Florida just saw the hottest May ever recorded in Miami — the heat index was “off the charts” according to the Miami Herald. The water temperature at Virginia Key set record temperatures for 12 consecutive days, and in late May it was as warm as it would normally be in late July. It seems like it will be a long summer in Florida. By May 30, there were already 12 daily heat index records set in 2024, according to meteorologist Brian McNoldy.

It’s “business as usual” for the state’s outdoor workers, though. Crops need to be harvested and construction projects need to be built despite the oppressive and potentially deadly heat, which has killed farmworkers like Efraín López García, a 29-year-old who complained while on the job of having a headache and experiencing dehydration symptoms.

The situation can be tolerable for workers who toil within enclosed spaces blessed by air conditioning. But for those who labor outdoors, the Florida legislature guaranteed that their misery would continue and worsen. Lawmakers recently passed HB 433, a broad preemption law that blocks local municipalities from enacting predictive scheduling laws, which require employers to provide work schedules to employees in advance; living wage standards; and, perhaps most shockingly, prohibits any heat stress protections for outdoor workers.

The story of how this heat stress preemption law came to be has its roots in Miami-Dade County. WeCount, a group that organizes laborers and farmworkers in the city of Homestead, led a coalition that came close to convincing the county commission to pass some basic heat stress protections for outdoor workers. Under the banner of “water, rest and shade,” hundreds of workers organized to require employers in the agriculture and construction industries to provide some basic protections or suffer financial penalties, even potentially being blocked from county contracts after repeated offenses. In its original form, the standard would have allowed workers a 10-minute paid rest and water break every two hours when the heat index reached 90 degrees Fahrenheit (90°F), although that was eventually raised to 95°F.

The bill passed its first vote when initially presented — but that didn’t last. Common sense and basic consideration for some of the hardest workers in Florida gave way to industry lobbying and special interest peddling, and commissioners deferred the bill until March. Commissioner Marleine Bastien, who cosponsored the bill, went on record to confirm that her office was under intense pressure to withdraw or amend the bill to make it unenforceable. Meanwhile, feckless Democrats like Commissioner Danielle Cohen-Higgins, who theoretically should have supported the ordinance, debased themselves by opposing it while reciting industry talking points, calling it an overreach and ridiculously claiming it “could potentially kill the industry.”

Miami-Dade County commissioners were ultimately spared from having to vote on a heat stress protection ordinance, even an amended version, by the introduction of HB 433 by State Representative Tiffany Esposito on November 13, 2023, just a week after the Miami-Dade ordinance was deferred. The bill was controversial even for the usually callous Florida legislature, and it seemed to stall throughout the session. That’s when pro-business lobbying groups associated with the Florida Chamber of Commerce, including the Associated Industries of Florida, stepped in to assist Esposito and make sure her bill crossed the finish line.

Public records obtained by the Orlando Weekly showed that Associated Builders and Contractors lobbyist Carol Bowen sent a text message to the chief of staff of House Speaker Paul Renner, saying, “I haven’t texted you in weeks — HEAT cannot die.” Another lobbyist from Associated Industries of Florida texted asking “Are you all looking to put the wage stuff back on?” referring to the living wage preemption component, which at one point was cut from the bill.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce would go on to further pressure lawmakers by threatening to double-weight the vote on HB 433 in their legislative report card, meaning they would be doubly penalized for voting against the bill. This report card can later be weaponized against lawmakers in political ads and is used by the chamber to determine who to donate to and against, with the chamber giving $1.44 million to campaign accounts from October 2023 to March 2024 and Associated Industries of Florida giving about $1.8 million in the same time frame.

These are the same lobbying interests that in the same legislative session supported a rollback of child labor protections to allow minors to work more than eight hours a day and more than 30 hours a week during the school year. They also lobbied for a state-level preemption of rent stabilization measures that were approved by voters in Orange County.

HB 433 was ultimately passed on March 8, around the time that Miami-Dade County would have taken up its deferred ordinance to establish local heat stress protections. Reached for comment, the Farmworker Association of Florida noted that the “same lawmakers and governor who unanimously supported common sense heat protections for student-athletes” did not extend the same protections to the “hard-working communities that produce the food that sustains us, and that build and maintain the critical infrastructure that we rely on.”

The preemption let commissioners off the hook and made industry lobbyists happy. The law is scheduled to go into effect on July 1, in the middle of a summer already seeing record high temperatures and with millions of outdoor workers across the state having little choice but to risk their health to survive.

The corporate-backed effort to prevent heat stress protections in an increasingly warming world isn’t just isolated to Florida, either. In 2023, Texas lawmakers passed broad preemption legislation nicknamed the “Death Star” law by detractors, blocking workplace standards mandating construction worker rest breaks. Similar to Florida, the Texas preemption bill followed local efforts to implement worker protection standards in a state with increasingly unbearable warm weather, with heat indices in South Texas recently hitting 115°F.

It doesn’t have to be this way. States like California, Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington have taken the opposite approach of Florida and instead established workplace heat stress protections. The apocalyptic warnings from Florida lawmakers that construction and agricultural companies would collapse if heat stress standards are adopted have so far not manifested in states that have adopted regulations to protect their outdoor workers.

Even more promising is the possibility of a national heat standard, something that the U.S. Department of Labor is considering implementing. Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su met with members of WeCount last week to discuss efforts including an upcoming proposal that will be submitted this year to require water, shade and paid rest periods for outdoor workers.

Javier, a construction worker affiliated with WeCount who has suffered near-death experiences from heat stress, said at the meeting that “it was a shame” the heat stress standard was not adopted in Miami-Dade but that it emphasized how “important it was to strengthen alliances between the federal government and agencies like OSHA to ensure workers have the protections they deserve.”

WeCount will launch a Worker Heat Protection Fund in the upcoming weeks to fund emergency PPE for outdoor workers and relief for those who stand up to demand heat protection and face possible retaliation.

Countdown is on: We have 24 hours left to raise $22,000

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