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The Florida Legislature doesn’t care how hot outdoor workers get


The Oscars on Sunday honored the year’s best film performances, best direction, best picture and, as a bonus, the best shade thrown. My pick for the latter would be host Jimmy Kimmel’s response to a social media post from a certain deluded Palm Beach club owner: “Isn’t it past your jail time?”

In a similar vein, for the Florida legislative session that ended last Friday, the papers have been full of talk about the big winners and losers. Bears were the clear losers, while trigger-happy cops and corrupt public officials were the obvious winners.

But shade was in short supply and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

A mere two hours before the session adjourned, our fine lawmakers passed a bill that says no local government is allowed to protect outdoor workers from our worsening heat. No limiting their hours. No requiring access to water.

Definitely no shade.

If I were making a Hollywood soundtrack to go with this awful bill, it would start with “Too Hot to Handle” by UFO.

Our legislators do not toil, neither do they spin, in the sweltering outdoors. They filed, debated, and voted for HB 433 in air-conditioned comfort. Heck, they probably never worked up a sweat.

A farmworker in Immokalee harvests tomatoes. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“This shows a callous disregard for human life,” said Jeff Goodell, author of The New York Times climate-change bestseller The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet. “Outdoor workers are far more vulnerable to extreme heat.”

Bear (ha ha!) in mind that these lawmakers are the same sensitive souls who also voted to loosen the laws on child labor although lawmakers agreed to a scaled-back version. Get those teenagers out there on the construction site! Make ’em perspire!

Picture a bunch of sunburned high school kids laboring outdoors for hours in the heat before they go start their homework. This is not likely to improve their awful ACT scores. Now we’ll play Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher,” although these students are just hot, period.

It was a member of an organization called Florida Student Power who broke down crying during a House Commerce Committee hearing on the bill last month.

“To me this bill is not about numbers, it’s about millions of Floridians and it is very personal,” said Laura Munoz, who testified that her father died in a workplace accident related to years of poor heat protections. “How much profit was worth his life, and how much profits are worth their lives? Because I don’t think there’s money enough to ever be worth it.”

Our legislators’ insistence on deleting references to climate change from state law now seems more sinister than silly. It’s like they’re removing clues from a crime scene to hide what they’re doing to working Floridians.

Sweatin’ to the oldies

For this next part, our soundtrack will switch to Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave.” We’re sweatin’ to the oldies!

Our spring weather right now is pleasant. But remember last summer? We suffered a heat wave the likes of which the world had never seen before. July 4 was the hottest day in human history.

It didn’t end with the summer.

“In Florida, 2023 was the hottest year on record for many locations, based on annual average mean temperatures,” the Florida Climate Center reported in December. “This includes Pensacola, Daytona Beach, Orlando, Tampa, Lakeland, Venice, Fort Myers, Miami, and Key West, all with a 60-year instrumental record or longer. Many other locations had one of their top five hottest years on record.”

These hot days and nights are increasing, too. According to the Miami-Dade County website, “Since 1970, Miami-Dade County has had an average increase of days above 90°F from 84 to now 133 days per year, which will continue to rise.”

Dangerous heat levels are becoming routine in Florida as state leaders look the other way and do little to combat global warming. (Getty Images)

Working in all that heat is bad for the human body. A University of Florida study released three years ago found that between 2010 and 2020, there were 215 heat-related deaths in Florida.

Two years ago, I interviewed a Florida State University professor named Christopher Uejio, who studies the health impacts of climate change.

“Extreme heat is really insidious,” he told me. “It affects a wide range of bodily functions. It makes your heart pump harder. With your respiratory system, it makes breathing harder. And when you’re breathing in hot air, that makes your respiratory system work harder, too.”

As Grist pointed out this week, Florida’s lawmakers are well aware of the damage heat can do to a body. Four years ago, faced with a grieving mom talking about her child’s death from heat stroke after football practice, they passed a law to protect student-athletes from experiencing it.

But adults? As Willy Wonka put it so well: “You get nothing! You lose! Good day to you, sir!”

“It is an abomination that hundreds of thousands of workers in Florida continue to risk their lives by working in dangerous heat without relief. And the fact that lawmakers will not act to protect those workers’ lives is simply unconscionable,” said Gerardo Reyes Chavez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has negotiated with employers to create the strongest heat protections in America.

Some like it hot

Now our soundtrack will play “I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen.

While you hum along with The Boss, consider how many people were working outdoors in last year’s withering heat.

There were people building houses and stores, picking up garbage, fixing phone lines, working on boats, staffing the theme park rides, renting out cabanas at the beach, cleaning pools, taking your order at Chick-fil-a and picking vegetables. One estimate I read said 2 million people in Florida work outdoors, but that number seems low to me.

Unlike our fine legislators, these folks can’t do their jobs in air conditioned comfort. They have to do it while dealing with solar power shining down on their bodies.

Jeff Goodell, author of “The Heat Will Kill You First,” via his website

Goodell contends that the disregard our constantly cooled politicians feel for these folks is rooted in one simple fact: “They’re brown people.”

For instance, the Florida Health Department reports that “150,000 to 200,000 migrant and seasonal farm workers and their families annually travel and work in Florida.”

Of course, that number maaaay have declined after the Legislature passed that rabidly anti-immigrant law last year — you know, the one that three lawmakers swore up and down was just political theater.

I disagree with him on this. I don’t think the politicians’ disdain is race-based. I think it’s all about class. These workers aren’t the wealthy folks that make campaign contributions. That means the politicos don’t see them as worth protecting. Our lawmakers seem far more interested in protecting the corporations that employ them.

When the bill came up in one House committee, the lobbyists who’d lined up to support it included well-dressed mouthpieces from the Association of Builders and Contractors, the Florida Farm Bureau, the Florida Home Builders Association, the National Utilities Contractors Association, and the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

Here’s where our soundtrack will play The Power Station’s Eighties hit “Some Like It Hot.” Remember that one? “Let’s turn up the heat till we fry!”

Safety last

In case you’re wondering why anyone would want workers to suffer in all that heat, let me tell you about who filed the bill.

Republican State Rep. Tiffany Esposito, representing part of Lee County, via Florida House

The House sponsor of HB 433, Rep. Tiffany Esposito, R-Safety Last, heads a Lee County version of the Chamber of Commerce called Southwest Florida Inc. She’s made it clear that she’s pro-business and anti-regulation.

You may recall she was pushing a bill to cut the time that local governments have to review building permits, which also passed both the House and Senate.

She’s received hefty campaign contributions from the Florida Home Builders Political Action Committee and a whole bunch of builders and developers, including the PAC of Spring Hill builder Blaise Ingoglia, who’s also a state senator.

During one committee hearing, she mentioned that her own husband is in the construction business, too.

“Not only do they do daily safety talks, but once a month they take an entire day … where they are not making any progress on the job and do a safety briefing,” she said proudly.

But that’s like saying we don’t need speed limits on the interstate because her hubby is such a safe driver. She never explained why she wanted to block counties and cities from policing companies that are less focused on worker safety.

Nor did she explain why she filed this bill just in time to thwart the one county that was about to do something about the heat issue.

We Count protest march for better working conditions in Miami-Dade

After last year’s heat wave, advocates from a group called We Count! , which works for better living and working conditions for immigrants, swung into action. They prodded the Miami-Dade County Commission to consider passing Florida’s first ordinance that would require heat protections for outdoor workers.

As first proposed, Miami-Dade would require construction and agriculture companies with five or more employees to guarantee workers access to water and give them 10-minute breaks in the shade every two hours on days when the heat index hits 90 degrees.

Employers would also train workers to recognize the signs of heat illness, administer first aid, and call for help in an emergency.

But then industry groups went to work on the commissioners and got these common-sense rules (ahem!) watered down (pause here for readers’ eyes to stop rolling). Then they persuaded the commissioners to postpone the vote. The whole thing was at last headed for a showdown this month.

But before that could happen, Esposito’s bill, filed two days after the ordinance was first introduced, killed it dead. Some lawmakers admitted they had a problem with that.

“We’re saying we don’t mind people dying,” said a clearly horrified Rep. Dotie Joseph, D-North Miami. No one told her she was wrong.

Too hot, baby

Next up on our soundtrack, it’s Kool and the Gang with “Too Hot.” Sing along! “Got to run for shelter, run for shaaaade…”

Professional hot air generators Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck used to rant about how evil lib’ruls were turning America into a “nanny state.” But the nannies never seemed to do much about the heat.

“Currently, there are no specific federal or state laws that provide heat exposure protections for outdoor workers,” said the House staff’s bill analysis on HB 433.

Year after year, some Florida lawmakers have proposed bills that would change that. The bills would have required everyone who employs outdoor workers to educate them about heat illness as well as provide workers with adequate drinking water, access to shade, and 10-minute recovery breaks in extreme heat.

Not one of those bills has ever made it out of committee.

As for the feds, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced in 2021 that it would draw up some heat-related regulations, but so far it hasn’t. All it’s posted are recommendations, which carry as much weight as the Pirate’s Code in “Pirates of the Caribbean”: “More what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.”

Goodell called OSHA’s foot-dragging “outrageous.” Coming up with rules for water and shade breaks shouldn’t be that hard, he said.

“You and I could probably work out a set in about 20 minutes,” he said, grossly overestimating my competence. “But industry has been lobbying against it, and that’s what’s causing the delay.”

Business lobbyists insisted to the Legislature that OSHA does regulate heat exposure. What they didn’t say is that OSHA penalizes employers only after something has gone horribly wrong.

For instance, in 2021, OSHA cited Valley Produce Harvesting and Hauling Company in Clewiston for exposing 49 sugar cane harvesting employees to “excessive heat, elevated temperature working conditions, direct sun radiation, and thermal stress.” One of the workers died from heat stroke.

Valley Produce was hit with a fine of $81,919. That did not, of course, bring the man back to life.

climate heat air
Excessive heat fueled by climate change contributes to drought, wildfires, crop failures, and impaired human health. Getty Images

The Miami Herald reported that that was the company’s second fine for ignoring the dangers of heat. The first was just a year before. The company was fined $9,446 for letting an employee planting sugar cane in Belle Glade get so sick from the heat that he wound up in the hospital.

That sure seems like a failure on OSHA’s part. But during debate on the Senate version of the Florida bill, the sponsor, Sen. Jay Trumbull, R-Don’t Care, argued that, in the interest of uniform enforcement, OSHA should be the one to set the “overarching standard for the state.”

This marks quite a turnaround from all the times that Florida lawmakers have sneered at the feds’ other health-related departments, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

I find it especially ironic because Trunbull’s family owns Culligan water franchises for the Florida Panhandle and South Alabama. He’s supplying water to office workers, but the heck with those poor folks who work outside. You get nothing!

The heat is on

Our soundtrack has one last number: Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On.”

This climate change problem is one that won’t go away, no matter how much our legislators snip-snip-snip at those words in state law. Our world just keeps getting warmer. The Old Farmer’s Almanac is predicting this summer in Florida will bring above-normal temperatures and below-normal rainfall.

Unless Gov. Ron “I Love Fossil Fuels More Than I Love Chocolate Pudding” DeSantis suddenly sprouts a spine, he won’t veto this bad bill. Once he signs it into law, all these outdoor workers who want to stay employed will have to risk their lives without any rules protecting them.

I am not sure what it would take to change our lawmakers’ minds. But I have a suggestion for any working people who come into contact with them this summer.

Mess with their home air conditioning. Turn their office thermostat up and then break it. Fix their car’s A/C so it’s on the fritz.

If they call you for a repair appointment, explain that you’re booked solid for a month. No matter how much they plead, tell them they’ll just have to cope with it a while. Assure them they’ll live.

Let them see what it’s like to perspire heavily and wish for a drink of water and a bit of shade. Maybe that will change their tune.

Florida, Florida Legislature, Florida Phoenix, Farmworkers, Outdoor Workers


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