Florida Republicans block heat protection regulations, tell workers to roast
A demonstrator covers himself with a sheet to simulate a worker killed by extreme heat, June 21, 2023, during a rally by outdoor workers demanding workplace protections against extreme heat in Miami. Demonstrators were calling on the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners to pass a county heat standard adding life-saving labor protections like guaranteed access to water and shaded rest breaks for those that work outside in the county. Commissioners unanimously passed the measure, but state Republicans have stepped in to reverse the measure. | Wilfredo Lee / AP

MIAMI—In October 2023, commissioners in Miami passed an ordinance requiring contractors and other employers involved with outdoor work to provide their workers with some form of shade and other means to cool down. But on April 12, 2024, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a statute that nullified the ordinance and rendered illegal any local legal requirements that protect outdoor workers from the heat.

Miami-Dade County’s regulation would have guaranteed outdoor workers, like roofers, farmworkers, landscapers, and others who work in the sun, water breaks, shade, and first aid. Given the recent record heat in Florida and elsewhere, workers welcomed the measure, which was passed unanimously. Working in a hot, humid sun can create heat stress, dehydration, and sunstroke, and if left untreated, it can kill.

There have been reports of workers dying in south Florida and being found lying in ditches. The incidents were sensationalized by local media, but for anyone who has labored under a hot sun, such consequences were not unexpected. Similar stories have played out around the world in recent weeks, such as the large number of deaths surrounding the pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia and the heat-related deaths during elections in India.

In an ideological defiance to climate change reality, however, Florida’s legislature went into action and passed legislation on the last day of its session to counter Miami’s move. It passed a bill forbidding and rendering null any local laws or regulations that involve heat safety regulation. These lawmakers once again displayed their disdain for workers, essentially telling them they can roast in the killer heat.

The arguments made by Republicans during the legislative hearings were their typical talking points. The most common claim made was that the GOP did not oppose heat safety measures per se, but that for one county to take the lead meant that there could be a patchwork of different regulations, which would interfere with contractors’ and employers’ ability to do business in different jurisdictions.

It’s true that the state should have uniform worker safety regulations, but that’s not likely anytime soon. Another argument was voiced by representatives claiming to be farmers, who said regulations protecting workers from heat were insulting to their employers, who are purportedly already committed to protecting workers.

This reaction is nothing new for the legislature. Anytime local governments have passed or proposed legislation that would life easier for working people, the Florida legislature has gone into overdrive to reverse or block it. Over the last year, it has passed bills prohibiting rent control, forbidding eviction limitations, and blocking living wage initiatives. It even prohibited legislation requiring employers to give employees their work schedules two weeks in advance.  The Florida legislature is there to serve – but only the needs of business.

This legislation blocking heat safety protections is particularly grievous and lethal. According to a local paper, the Orlando Weekly, the text of the bill was written by the Florida Chamber of Commerce. The paper was able to review communications between businesses and legislators, and it appeared the bill was supported by many of the largest employers in Florida, e.g. Disney, Florida Power and Light, and Publix.

The role of these corporations in reversing Miami-Dade County’s worker safety efforts was never made public before the bill was passed and signed. Florida’s two million people who make their living outdoors would certainly have liked to hear about the employers who fought to keep them cooking.

There is special cruelty to the action in that there is little alternative to the miserable wages and hot working conditions in a non-union state like Florida.

A number of news outlets reported on public outrage around the bill, saying it presents a bad picture of the state, although the corporations that rely on outdoor workers surely find it attractive. Even the state government, accustomed to being slammed for its reactionary policies, was a bit embarrassed.

The legislature hurriedly passed the legislation late in the day during the final legislative session. Gov. DeSantis quickly signed the bill into law, but he didn’t call in the television cameras, as is his standard practice.

He avoided speaking about the bill at all except to say, according to the Orlando Sentinel, that “it wasn’t anything coming from me.”  There was no crowing this time, no ceremonial signing. It must have been decided that a collection of CEOs and bosses gathered around the governor, pen in hand, wouldn’t be the best publicity.

Only five states have any regulations regarding heat protection for outdoor workers.  Washington state was one of the first, passing legislation in 2008 that set a heat threshold of 89 degrees Fahrenheit to trigger additional safety measures. Recently, the threshold was reduced to 80.

Only two states, Texas and now Florida, have passed legislation prohibiting heat protection regulations from being implemented by local authorities. The other 43 states, whether governed by Democrats or Republicans, have no heat exposure standards.

At the federal level, the Labor Department enforces worker safety legislation through OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). In 2022, it issued rules and guidelines for worker safety in hot and dangerous conditions. OSHA imposes on employers a duty to provide employees with a safe work environment and has now included Heat Stress Guidelines under the “general duty clause.” While this is a positive development, it leaves many workers out.

In Florida, as in many other states, a lot of outdoor labor is performed by undocumented workers. They are on construction sites, in fields picking vegetables and fruits, in stadiums and arenas cleaning up after games, mowing golf courses, washing dishes, moving furniture, painting buildings, and performing an endless list of other jobs. They don’t have workers’ compensation, Social Security, or unemployment compensation.

And more often than not, OSHA regulations are ignored by their employers. They are hired and paid by contractors, many unlicensed. These workers are the ones who are often most numerous among the laborers toiling in the hot sun with inadequate protection.

Florida’s state government has a long history of disregard for workers’ rights, and Gov. Desantis the Republican-dominated state legislature are working hard to maintain that legacy.

As for the heat, there’s only worse to come.

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Thomas Egan
Thomas Egan

Thomas Egan is a semi-retired lawyer who resides in Central Florida. He has traveled extensively on legal and human rights delegations in the Americas.