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The Republican Plot to Roast Outdoor Workers

Is it too much to ask growers and construction firms to furnish water and shade on hot days? Apparently so—in Florida and Texas.

Farm workers set up a mesh to grow vegetables at a farm in Homestead, Florida.
Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images
Farmworkers set up a mesh to grow vegetables at a farm in Homestead, Florida.

Republicans finally recognize the threat posed by climate change. The threat is that rising temperatures will tempt local governments to impose regulations to mitigate the health effects of extreme heat. The state of Florida moved last week to nip that in the bud.

Florida is a very hot place. Indeed, it’s the single hottest state, hotter even than Hawaii and Arizona, according to a research team at Payless Power, a Texas utility company. Like everyplace else, Florida only gets hotter. Since 2009, the average Florida temperature rose from 73.1 degrees to 76.3 degrees. That was bound to provoke labor agitation, and it did. A worker advocacy group in South Florida called We Count! initiated a campaign to require that agricultural and other outdoor workers, many of them undocumented immigrants, be provided sufficient water, shade, and rest.

In response, Miami-Dade County introduced an ordinance creating a heat standard for outdoor workers. The bill raised objections from the Miami-Dade Farm Bureau, which represents growers. “Farming is hard enough as it is,” protested the executive director, Jocelyn Guilfoyle. “The last thing we need is to be subject to the Miami-Dade Heat Police.” To mollify the growers, the county commission agreed to raise the temperature threshold triggering a requirement that employers give their workers water and break periods. It had been 90 degrees; the commission raised that to 95 degrees. The commission also lowered the maximum fine from $3,000 to $2,000.

That didn’t satisfy Florida’s Republican-controlled state government. For once, the impetus to pass a reactionary law did not come from Governor Ron DeSantis, perhaps because he’s no longer running for president. Rather, it came from the state legislature, where Republicans hold a supermajority. The bill’s sponsor in the Florida House, Tiffany Esposito, said at a hearing for the legislation that “if you want to talk about health and wellness, and you want to talk about how we can make sure that all Floridians are healthy, you do that by making sure that they have a good job. And in order to provide good jobs, we need to not put businesses out of business.”

Because Florida is a part-time legislature, Esposito did not give up her job when she entered state government. That job is president of SWFL Inc., a regional chamber of commerce for South Florida. Esposito’s legislation is therefore a giveaway to a business lobby of which Esposito is herself a member. The bill cleared Florida’s House and Senate March 8. DeSantis made sure reporters knew the bill wasn’t his idea (“It really wasn’t anything that was coming from me”), but he signed it last week nonetheless.

The Florida bill, House Bill 433, bars all local governments from imposing heat exposure rules on employers, or even from giving preference when contracting out services to firms based on how well they protect workers from heat exposure. Local governments aren’t even allowed to ask what those protections might be. For good measure, the bill bars local governments from setting wage minimums or regulating “just in time” scheduling for workers. These latter provisions appear to have been added at the bidding of the Florida Chamber of Commerce and written by the Foundation for Government Accountability, a right-wing group bankrolled largely by the Bradley Impact Fund, a spin-off of the Bradley Foundation.

The rationale for the bill is that regulating heat exposure at the local rather than the state or federal level risks creating a patchwork of conflicting rules throughout the state. This would be more persuasive if heat exposure were regulated by the Florida state government or the federal government. It is not. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulates heat exposure only through its “general duty clause,” which requires employers to maintain workplaces “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious harm.” But OSHA rarely bases regulatory actions on the general duties clause because these tend to get tossed out by judges.

OSHA announced in September 2021 that it’s working on a heat exposure rule, which is long overdue. But OSHA rulemaking proceeds at a pace that’s glacial even for federal regulators, and thus far we haven’t seen a proposed rule. As I noted three years ago, this one really can’t wait because heat exposure kills about 50 workers per year.

In the absence of federal action, various localities and even some states (California, Washington, Colorado, Minnesota, and Oregon) have moved to regulate workers’ heat exposure. But after Dallas and Austin imposed their own municipal heat exposure rules, the Republican-controlled Texas state legislature moved to thwart these efforts by passing H.B. 2127. Governor Greg Abbott signed it last June, during a heat wave. Like DeSantis, Abbott showed a disinclination to take credit. Such reticence makes me wonder whether GOP-mandated heat stroke could be a potent political issue for Democrats this fall.

As Florida did last week, Texas barred local governments from imposing regulations to limit heat exposure, making the same “patchwork of regulations” argument—even though Texas, like Florida, has no statewide regulation on heat exposure and no intention of creating one. Texas is not the hottest state—it doesn’t even crack Payless Power’s top three—but it does enjoy the distinction of killing the most workers from heat exposure, according to The Texas Tribune, at least for the years 2011 to 2022. Its passage of H.B. 2127, which took effect in September, will presumably help it keep the title.

At bottom, neither the Republicans in Texas nor the Republicans in Florida really object to local governments poaching on state responsibilities. As Jordan Barab, author of the indispensable Confined Space blog on worker safety, pointed out Monday, the preamble to Florida’s law gives the game away. Local regulation of heat exposure, it said, would “ignore the individual responsibility of an employee [italics Barab’s] to follow relevant guidelines and to protect himself or herself from heat-related illnesses.” If you die picking oranges from heat exposure, the state of Florida would like it to be your own goddamned fault.