The Miami-Dade County Commission has voted 8-2 to table proposed protections for outdoor workers against heat until next March where the proposal will die if not approved. Removing these protections would be great news for Miami-Dade construction and farm workers!

Wait. Hold on. Great news? With so many workers getting sick and dying from heat-related illnesses, how can failing to implement workplace protections against heat be such good news — especially after the hottest summer in human history?

Because, according to the Florida business community, if implemented, the “outrageous” measures required in the bill — water, shade and rest — would have destroyed the agriculture and construction industries, throwing tens or hundreds of thousands of workers out of jobs. They would face destitution and homelessness. Their children would starve.

Oh, and freedom. Now Miami Dade workers will continue to enjoy their God-given freedom to die on the job from a preventable workplace hazard.

Thanks to the good work of the Florida business community, workers can keep their jobs. If not their lives.

So, what’s really going on here?

Miami-Dade workers can thank Florida’s agriculture and construction industry lobbyists who used their money, political power and threats to convince the Miami-Dade County Commission to table a bill, initially approved unanimously last summer.

“This is an overreaching and outrageous heat sanction on only two industries,” said Commissioner Danielle Cohen Higgins. “This ordinance could potentially kill industry.”

Oh my!

Back in the day, we had a term for business’s attempts to convince workers that they faced a choice between their jobs and their lives: Job Blackmail.

Back in the day, we had a term for business’s attempts to convince workers that they faced a choice between their jobs and their lives: Job Blackmail

The bill mandating the protections was being pushed by the worker advocacy group WeCount:

“We’re workers who have suffered cramps, chills, vomiting, dizziness, fainting and put our lives at risk,” said Pedro Marcos Raymundo, a construction worker, roofer and member of WeCount, an advocacy group that organizes outdoor workers in South Florida. “Workers like me deserve water, shade and rest and we need to be trained on the symptoms of heat illness. Our lives can’t be at risk to make the owners rich.”

heatThe original ordinance would have required construction and agriculture employers with five or more employees to provide construction and farm workers access to water and 10-minute breaks in the shade every two hours on days when the heat index hits 90 degrees. It also would have required employers to train workers to recognize the signs of heat illness, administer first aid and call for help in an emergency. The protections were estimated to cover 100,000 workers.

The original bill was significantly weakened as a result of a “compromise” with the business opposition and then 8 commissioners still voted against the weakened bill. The revised bill would have only taken effect after the heat index hit 95 degrees, which puts the threat to workers far into the “danger” zone of OSHA’s heat app.

Following the vote, WeCount release a press release promising to keep fighting.

“Working outdoors should not be a death sentence,” said Oscar Londoño, co-executive director of the worker-led WeCount!, which launched the Que Calor campaign over two years ago and has been leading the efforts to pass the first municipal heat standard in the country.

“Today, our Miami-Dade Commission delayed a historic vote that would have guaranteed basic human rights for outdoor workers, like access to clean water and the right to a 10 minute rest break to drink that water under shade. It’s shameful that industry associations and their lobbyists keep using their money and political influence to block these common-sense protections,” Londoño said. “In the coming months, we will continue to organize to win the first municipal heat standard in the country. We know we’re on the right side of history, and we hope our County Commissioners will join us and pass this legislation in March.”

High heat is bad for workers

It gets hot in Florida, and outdoor workers pay the price — in death and illness.

WeCount organized testimony an a demonstration when the bill was presented to the Commission.

In more than an hour and a half of public comments, 48 workers, nurses, doctors, religious leaders, students and community activists spoke in favor of the bill. They spoke, sometimes tearfully, of coworkers and loved ones who had been hospitalized or died on the job, patients they’d seen coming into emergency rooms with heat-related illness or the heat strokes they had survived while working under South Florida’s unforgiving sun.

The Miami Herald has chronicled the stories of farm workers, roofers, landscapers, and other workers who have no legal protections and no relief from the heat if they want to keep their jobs. And just last August,  a South Florida farm worker, Efrain Lopez Garcia died after working during the historic heat wave.  Friends and loved ones say Lopez Garcia complained about feeling sick during a recent shift out in the heat.

Last summer was the the hottest ever recorded in Miami .

López García, like the rest of Miami-Dade County’s over 300,000 outdoor workers, had been laboring outside during a record-breaking stretch of hot days when he died. Since June 12, the county’s heat index — a measure of heat and humidity that tells you how hot it feels in the shade — has risen above 100 degrees for 37 straight days. Shortly before López García’s death on July 6, the county began a still-unbroken 16-day stretch in which the National Weather Service has issued a heat advisory every single day.

Following Lopez-Garcia’s death, Miami-Dade county commissioners unanimously passed the preliminary measure to adopt a heat standard for workers. A stronger measure than the one they just defeated earlier this week.

But that was then.

High heat is bad for business

While predicting the destruction of Florida’s agriculture and construction industry, the opponents had no explanation for how construction and agriculture workers in states that have regulations protecting workers from heat have somehow managed to stay employed. States like California, Oregon, Minnesota, Colorado and Washington.

And considering that they’re allegedly interested in the profitability of their industries, the Miami Dade Commissioners and business community seem to have shockingly little understanding of how high heat impacts productivity.

A New York Times story earlier this year describes the productivity-killing effects of high heat:

In 2021, more than 2.5 billion hours of labor in the U.S. agriculture, construction, manufacturing, and service sectors were lost to heat exposure, according to data compiled by The Lancet. Another report found that in 2020, the loss of labor as a result of heat exposure cost the economy about $100 billion, a figure projected to grow to $500 billion annually by 2050.

Other research found that as the mercury reaches 90 degrees Fahrenheit, productivity slumps by about 25 percent and when it goes past 100 degrees, productivity drops off by 70 percent.

Of the many economic costs of climate change —- dying cropsspiking insurance rates, flooded properties — the loss of productivity caused by heat is emerging as one of the biggest, experts say.

And the opposition isn’t pussyfooting around.  They’re relying not only on traditional lobbying, but lawsuits as well:

In one of its communications ahead of Tuesday’s vote, the Associated General Contractors of South Florida (AGC) urged supporters to ‘FIGHT BACK!’ against the bill by caheatlling the mayor or commissioners, or by contributing financially to a potential lawsuit against the county. Earlier this year, Florida made a new law allowing businesses to sue local governments for policies that impact a business’s profits.

The Commissioners had a number of other creative arguments to continue killing workers:

  • Many tried to argue that the bill wasn’t really needed because employers are already taking care of the problem themselves. According to the Miami Herald, “Some employers in South Florida’s agriculture and construction industries said they already provide water, shade and rest to their employees and don’t need new oversight, which they derisively call the ‘heat police.’”

(Editorial Note: I have often heard this same argument over the past decades: “We don’t need no stinkin’ business-killing health and safety regulations that are going to cost so much they put us out of business. Because we’re already doing the right thing protecting our employees.” But I never could figure out how something you’re allegedly already doing will cost you too much. Kind of like saying we don’t need costly speeding penalties because I always drive below the speed limit. Seems to me if you’re already doing the right thing, you don’t have to worry about additional costs or penalties for not doing the right thing.)

  • Some thought passing the bill was pointless because the legislature and Governor would just follow the example the Texas legislature and Governor Greg Abbott and pass a law prohibiting localities from passing laws more protective than state laws.
  • Others want to wait for federal OSHA to act, which of course, is likely to take several more years. (Suggested question for reporters: “So state that you would prefer to wait for federal standards. Does that mean you be supporting issuance of the federal standards when they are  proposed?)

Despite not having an enforceable standard, federal OSHA has cited a few cases under its “General Duty Clause” which allows the agency to cite an employer for not providing a safe workplace. But those citations are few and OSHA generally only issues them after a worker dies. Last summer, OSHA cited a Broward County farm $15,625 for not protecting its workers after a 28-year-old strawberry picker died of heat stroke. And last year, OSHA cited Citrus Harvesting Inc., in Duette Florida when a 35 year old farmworker died of heat stroke.

Proposing regulations hurts employers’ tender feelings. The Farm Bureau’s Heather Moehling whined that “It’s frankly insulting to be told we’re not taking care of our employees.”  

  • Many employers argue it would be better to just rely on training workers to protect themselves than actually providing rest, shade and water.  (Of course, that makes it the workers’ responsibility to protect themselves.)

Heather Moehling, vice president of the Dade County Farm Bureau, said her industry would prefer this bill to disappear completely and be handled entirely by the federal government, but if something does pass in Miami-Dade, they would support an educational-only campaign with no penalties or fines. “That’s the only way we can see this progressing positively.”

Workers aren’t quite as confident that relying solely on training will effectively protect workers, or that employers will act to protect workers without requirements:

Karen Maderal, a nursery worker in South Dade, said that despite the proclamations from industry ambassadors that employers take care of their workers, she has personally worked several jobs where she is either discouraged or blocked from drinking enough water. As a result, she said she’s suffered a renal infection, heart issues and heat stroke. Extra time to come up with new legislation takes a toll on outdoor workers like herself, she said.

In other words, being trained and knowledgeable about how to protect yourself doesn’t help much if your employer makes it difficut or retaliates against you for actually taking action to protect yourself.

  • Also,  proposing regulations hurts employers’ tender feelings. The Farm Bureau’s Heather Moehling whined that “It’s frankly insulting to be told we’re not taking care of our employees.”  Ouch!
  • Finally, there’s the the ultimate problem with this — or any — workplace safety protection: Evil Unions. According to the AGC, “This Heat Ordinance is not about workers, it is about empowering labor organizations who want to expand their footprint in South Florida.”  Good to know.

Bottom Line

Business associations and lobbyists hate regulations. Always have. Always will.

It doesn’t matter if the protections save workers lives or if the law states that employers must provide a safe workplace.

Employers’ idea of “freedom” is the freedom to treat workers however they want, pay them as little as they want, and if they don’t like the punishing and unsafe working conditions, workers are FREE to seek employment elsewhere.

It doesn’t even matter if the regulations save money in the long run. Their opposition is an ideological resistance to anyone from the government telling them how to run their business or treat their workers.  (Claiming the sky is falling is also a great fundraising strategy.)

Their version of “freedom” is not the freedom that workers need (and are legally entitled to): being free to come home from work alive and healthy.

Employers’ idea of freedom is the freedom to treat workers however they want, pay them as little as they want, and if they don’t like the punishing and unsafe working conditions, workers are FREE to seek employment elsewhere.

And needless to say, business organizations have a lot of money and clout to kill anything that might benefit workers. Especially in Republican-controlled states like Florida.

Ultimately, the only way to fight back is to organize — into unions or worker-rights organizations like WeCount. Contract language and a union to enforce that language can often be more effective than an understaffed, under resourced agency like OSHA.

And the pressure that workers put on legislators — threatening that which they hold most dear: their re-election — is the only way to win.  But we need to put more pressure on them than the business community puts on them. We need to actually make this issue about jobs: the Miami-Dade Commissioners’ jobs.

And let’s not forget that Republicans don’t do OSHA standards when they’re in charge. So if we have a Republican President after 2024, the heat standard will like not see the light of day for many, many more years.

We’re entering an election year. Not just in Miami-Dade, but in cities, counties and states across the country. You know what to do.

Workers like Efrain Lopez Garcia should not die in vain.

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