Sunday, May 12, 2024

ANNALS OF DeSANTISTAN: No shade, no water, no breaks: DeSantis' new law threatens Florida outdoor worker health (USA Today Network)

As former counsel to the AFL-CIO Occupational Health Legal Rights Foundation, I am appalled at the unjust stewards of Florida water break law.  Share their shame.  From USA Today Network:

No shade, no water, no breaks: DeSantis' new law threatens Florida outdoor worker health

Kate Cimini
USA TODAY Network-Florida

NAPLES, Fla. – In South Florida, one of the state's hottest regions, María González works outdoors cleaning planes.

González spends her nights on the airport tarmac doing deep cleans of planes – scrubbing away feces, vomit, animal and human hair and more. Often, she said, airline staff turn off the plane’s air conditioning to save gasoline and money and let it sit on the asphalt, which radiates heat.

“Hay mucho calor, entonces uno sude y sude y sude,” González said. “El calor se duplica ahora porque empiece el verano.”

In English: it gets so hot on the planes as she cleans that she can’t stop sweating. And in the summer? The heat doubles.

“Me siento como mal, como yo me fuera a desmayar,” said González, explaining that her blood pressure drops, and she often feels so ill that she thinks she’s going to faint.

But in April, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law banning local municipalities from requiring employers to give heat breaks to outdoor workers such as González, a move DeSantis himself admitted to media was to slap back at one of Florida’s most progressive municipalities, Miami-Dade County, one county south from where she works.

Only Miami-Dade County required employers to provide heat breaks to begin with.

DeSantis' office did not respond to requests for comment.

Still, his decision to get rid of home rule in a state that values small government and is one of the hottest states in the nation took some local officials aback and infuriated outdoor workers and their advocates in some of the hottest regions of the state.

In a warming world, outdoor workers and organizations that protect them say heat and water breaks are a matter of life and death.

“These pro-heat stress bills are really about making sure no one is held accountable if something bad happens to workers…if they get sick or die in extreme heat,” said Florida District Director for Miami-based custodial workers' union SEIU 32BJ Helene O’Brien.

Florida holds municipalities to a heat standard that doesn't exist

Florida House Bill 433 states that cities or towns don’t have a right to require employers to provide heat or shade breaks that the state or federal government doesn’t already require. Absent a state department of worker safety, Florida falls under federal OSHA jurisdiction, which covers most private-sector workers in the state.

However, neither the federal government nor Florida has a heat standard that requires breaks at certain temperatures or sun exposure; advocates say the language is frustratingly vague. Federal workplace safety agency OSHA instead requires breaks "long enough for workers to recover from the heat." And while OSHA requires employers to provide water for workers, it doesn’t require that employers give their workers time to drink the water.

The vagaries of the policy have allowed some companies to push the limits – until their workers feel the effects. And the threat of an OSHA investigation doesn't always strike fear into the hearts of management or owners.

Just last summer, one farmworker, 29-year-old Efraín López García, died from heat exposure just hours into his first day on the job at a Homestead fruit farm. It was July 6, and the heat index hit 105 degrees that day, according to the National Weather Service.

The farm labor contractor that employed him, McNeill Labor Management, was found to have exposed workers to direct sunlight and failed to implement protections. Despite its role in López García’s death, the company is now fighting the $27,655 in proposed penalties OSHA imposed upon the business.

González says her employer, HHS Aviation, a cleaning company that contracts for Delta Airlines, has also ignored federal workplace safety standards.

In this file photo, a traveler passes a Delta Airlines plane, which sits on the tarmac at Logan Airport in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., June 30, 2022.

HHS Aviation does, in theory, provide water, González said. But not in practice.

After multiple employees complained about a lack of water, which is against federal law, management purchased and placed a water cooler in the break room two months ago, she said. However, Gonzalez added, there is no water in it – and there has never been.

This leaves González and her coworkers thirsty, even dehydrated. She carries water to work, but doesn’t have a place to store it outside her locker. She can’t carry it with her while cleaning, or waiting for a plane to arrive – she can only drink when she is on break near her locker. She said she was unaware of any other water sources available to the employees.

HHS Aviation disputed González's accounts of the heat and lack of water in her workplace, insisting that employees were allowed to refuse to board a plane and begin cleaning until it was fully cooled, and were trained to stop working when it was unsafe to do so. Additionally, in an email, the company said employees have had access to clean drinking water since operations began Sept. 19, 2023. Too, HHS said, break areas contained bottled water and hallways sported communal water fountains.

"HHS Aviation is committed to the health and safety of our team members, as they are our most valuable asset. We ensure all team members receive access to water, proper training, proper functioning tools and equipment, and designated rest periods," wrote marketing vice president Shannon Steck in an email. "We comply with all Occupational Safety and Health Act regulations, Transportation Safety Administration programs and directives, and applicable federal, state, and local laws and regulations."

After the USA TODAY Network-Florida called HHS Aviation and Delta Airlines about González's complaints, she said management finally filled the water cooler in the break room.

Delta Airlines declined to comment.

Though O'Brien says SEIU 32BJ has filed federal complaints against HHS Aviation on González and her coworkers' behalf, OSHA and other federal agencies can be slow to act. And González and her union point to HB 433 as an example of the state not having workers’ backs, either.

While the federal government is working on adding a heat standard for workers, it won’t be in place for at least two years, if not more – and will likely be killed if Trump wins the November election, worker advocates and heat experts say.

Although Florida has hamstrung its municipalities with this law, O'Brien said laborers still have other options to fight the heat and negotiate better working conditions for themselves: unionization.

“Maybe we need to be bigger at the state level and hold employers accountable for mistreatment of workers,” O’Brien said. “People are going to organize and going to fight … with whatever channels they have.”

Climate change, increasing heat lead to more emergency room visits, deaths

This map from the NOAA Coral Reef Watch global satellite reveals regions with high levels of marine heat stress between January 1, 2023 and April 10, 2024. Heat stress can trigger coral bleaching events by interfering with the photosynthesis of algae that live in corals.

DeSantis signed HB 433 less than a year after an “ocean heat wave” killed off entire coral reefs around Florida, such has never been seen before in recorded history. That tipped over into human exposure, too.

That same year, nearly 2,000 died from heat exhaustion across the U.S. In Florida, 215 people died between 2010 and 2020 from heat, University of Florida data shows.

2023 report out of the National Conference of Citizenship found heat-related deaths in Florida shot up by 88% between 2019 and 2022.

Climate change and a warming world is increasing the number of days of extreme heat humans are exposed to. According to NASA, the summer of 2023 was the hottest on record.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Centers for Disease Control found in 2024 that emergency visits for heat-related illnesses surged in 2023, especially among men and adults aged 18 to 64: or, as University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute CEO Douglas Casa noted, the demographic most likely to work outdoors.

In this file photo, a farmworker picks up an irrigation sprinkler early morning in Salinas, California, on April 26, 2022.

Casa studies the effects of heat on the human body. His heat lab has been the recipient of more than a dozen Department of Defense grants in recent years, researching cooling strategies, and physiological and clinical implications of heat stress.

Heat exposure-related illnesses and deaths are almost certainly undercounted, as discrete heat-exposure events and a lifetime of chronic dehydration can lead to shortened lifespans from kidney and heart disease, Casa said.

The effects of heat on outdoor workers may be even more serious than the current science shows, Casa said.

"Laborers are between ages 30 to 70, and they don’t have a two-hour practice or game; they’re doing 12-hour shifts and they are on medications and have other problems," Casa said. "And we take care of them the least amount. Laborers have been kept out of the loop in the long term."

DeSantis kills home rule on heat regulations with new law

In this file photo, Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference at the FGCU Kapnick Education and Research Center in Naples on Tuesday, April 23, 2024.

Florida House Bill 433, which DeSantis signed into law in April, prohibits local governments from requiring shade or water breaks for outdoor workers, or even giving preference to employers based on their heat exposure requirements.

But only one county of 67 – Miami-Dade County – had such a requirement already in place. The county had recently passed an ordinance requiring employers to give outdoor workers 10-minute breaks in the shade for every two hours worked outside.

Miami-Dade's "heat officer," Jane Gilbert, is charged with designing mitigation strategies to help protect workers from the heat, some of which this law effectively killed.

Still, Gilbert said in a statement, her staff members have not given up.

She cited her office's work expanding tree canopy, designating cooling sites during heat season, installing nearly 2,000 air conditioning units in public housing and providing heat safety trainings for personnel who work with homeless residents as examples of her continued dedication to combating heat.

“We will continue to do everything within our power to ensure the people of Miami-Dade County are safe from extreme heat," Gilbert said.

But in the absence of the stick, there still exists the carrot.

Governments can put all sorts of incentives in place to protect workers, such as fast-tracking permits, reducing taxes or providing grants to companies that commit to protecting workers on the job, said Kathy Baughman McLeod, CEO and founder of gender and climate-focused organization Climate Resilience for All.

Baughman McLeod has worked in climate resiliency for roughly 25 years, including at the Arsht-Rockefeller Resilience Center, Bank of America, The Nature Conservancy and, finally, at the Office of the State of Florida’s Chief Financial Officer. The latter she credits with shaping her career, as well as her understanding of government and conservation.

Baughman McLeod added that local governments interested in improving their response to intensifying heat should also work to improve data around heat's effects on health and community, as it is poorly understood.

"Heat is killing more people than any other hazard," said Baughman McLeod. "It's silent and invisible. This law ... is the total opposite direction of where we should be going."

Elsewhere, local government officials were discomfited by the passage of the law.

In this file photo, Collier County Commissioner Bill McDaniel speaks in Naples, Florida, on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023.

In conservative Collier County, two hours due west of Miami and subject to similar temperatures, Commissioner Bill McDaniel wondered at why the law got rid of home rule on a subject that just one county in Florida had passed restrictions on. It felt like an unnecessary overreach, he said, though he added he felt the government had no place between an employer and its employee.

“I have to say two things: I don’t like state mandates on local government, ever,” McDaniel said. But, he added, “I believe the onus is on the employer and not the government to mandate things that good employers should be doing anyway."

“Two, I know that 99% of employers that employ people that work outside already take care of those people. They cherish their employees.”

If they don’t, he said, they won’t have any left.

Jon Esformes, CEO of Sunrise Certified Brands, poses for a portrait along one of the grape tomatoes fields owned by his company in Immokalee, in Collier County, Florida, Friday, February 9, 2024. Esformes was the first grower to sign a Fair Food Agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

Grower: Shade, electrolyte-infused water and regular breaks improve farmworker performance

As McDaniel suspected, at least some employers already offer shade and water breaks to their outdoor workers and they intend to continue the practice, such as Collier County's Immokalee-based Pacific Tomato Growers owner and Sunripe Certified Brands CEO Jon Esformes.

Farm workers labor outdoors for hours at a time. The work they do, often under the hot sun, creates its own sort of heat. Their bodies then must work not only to keep up with the work they are performing, but must also work to cool themselves, as well.

Farmworkers are also regularly paid piece rates instead of by the hour, incentivizing workers to work to the point of exhaustion or dehydration.

But not on Esformes’ farm.

Esformes was the first grower to sign on to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' Fair Food Program in the 1990s, which requires employers to provide heat breaks for their workers. He says providing shade and water breaks for workers is an important part of farming in Florida and has testified in Tallahassee to that effect.

“Agriculture is a big dark secret in North America in terms of worker relationships,” Esformes said. “Heat stress for agricultural workers has long been a problem.”

Esformes provides his workers with shaded places to sit, electrolyte-infused water, mandatory and voluntary breaks, and even sends workers home for the day when the “feels-like” temperature is too hot. He told the USA TODAY Network-Florida the Fair Food Program was an important part of moving into the future as a grower and honoring his employees’ rights as humans.

“No worker should risk their life in dangerous heat without relief,” Coalition of Immokalee Workers representative and farmworker Gerardo Reyes Chaves said in a statement.

Once he began offering extra heat protections to his workers, Esformes said he realized this was also a great business decision. His workers’ productivity – and consequently his farming operation’s productivity – increased, and their physical and cognitive function remained higher as their bodies stayed cooler.

Esformes questioned the rationale behind passing HB 433. Temperatures vary so widely across the state that it would behoove the state to allow local municipalities to pass their own requirements to avoid over-legislating across the state, Esformes said.

“I don’t know that it would be wrong for one part of the state to have a different protocol than the other,” Esformes said. “But I do believe that when it comes to worker protections, few states do enough to address … heat illness for outdoor workers."

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services did not respond to requests for comment.

Field workers unload baskets full of grape tomatoes harvested at a Sunripe Certified Brands farm in Immokalee Friday, February 9, 2024. The farm is one of a growing number which works with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The CIW, started in 1993 by a group of six workers has been fighting for the rights of workers since its inception. Through their campaign for fair food that launched their Fair Food Program in 2011, they have secured agreements from major grocery and fast food chains to help protect the rights of workers from wage theft, abuse, and other ills of the farming industry.
As they look back on these 13 years of the program, many of their staff reflects on the continued work needed to ensure worker’s rights are maintained as well as preparing to continue their campaign to bring holdout brands like Wendy’s to the table.

United Farm Workers, a labor organization for farmworkers, has branches in California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Texas and Michigan. The organization has pushed for, and seen implemented, heat regulations in several of those states, including California and Oregon, though Texas has rolled back heat protections for workers in recent months.

Elizabeth Strater, the UFW director of strategic campaigns, said the heat protections in California and Oregon improved farmworkers' lives and health. After implementing heat rules in California, she said, data showed that despite increasingly intense heat waves, the rate of kidney disease in farm workers declined dramatically.

“It isn’t just about getting up and not dying that day," Strater said. "It’s about how the nature of that work shortens your life.”

González, who spends her working hours doing deep cleans of Delta’s planes on a South Florida tarmac, said she was livid about HB 433. She demanded that lawmakers think more about the people they represent before passing and signing these bills.

González paused and thought over her words for a moment.

"Estoy indignada," she said. I'm indignant. They should take better care of us. Have some respect for us.

“Deberían tomarse más cura de nosotros, más cuidado. Y creo que el respeto, también. El respeto a la persona."

Contributed: Ana Goñi-Lessan, state watchdog reporter at the Tallahassee Democrat

Kate Cimini is the Florida Investigative Reporter for the USA TODAY-Network Florida, based at The News-Press and The Naples Daily News. Contact her at 239-207-9369 or


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