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Get the latest coverage of the 2024 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Tallahassee bills aim to kill efforts by counties to establish heat protections

Gilberto Lujano, 49, spreads tar while working on a roof on Tuesday, May 2, 2023, in Homestead, Fla.
Matias J. Ocner
/
The Miami Herald
Gilberto Lujano, 49, spreads tar while working on a roof on Tuesday, May 2, 2023, in Homestead.

The latest in a string of preemption edicts from the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature would block local governments from setting heat protections for workers.

Exactly a week after lobbyists succeeded in derailing Miami-Dade County’s landmark heat safety legislation, a lawmaker filed a bill in Tallahassee to block similar efforts in the future.

And not just in Miami-Dade. The latest in a string of preemption edicts from the Republican-controlled Legislature would block any city or county from setting standards to protect workers from the increasing risks of extreme heat.

With Florida’s legislative session firmly over the halfway mark, efforts to block heat protections are moving forward in Tallahassee. And another measure, with watered down standards to simply encourage employees to protect workers from the heat with no penalties if they don’t, appears dead in the water for the seventh year running.

Last year, after the hottest recorded summer in Florida, advocates pushed Miami-Dade to pass protections for outdoor workers, including mandatory shaded water breaks on hot days. After pushback from politically powerful industries, including construction and agriculture, the proposed policy was watered down and delayed.

It is set to return in some form to Miami-Dade commissioners in March, but the bill’s co-sponsor, Commissioner Marleine Bastien, acknowledged that the state might preempt her legislation before then.

“I remain committed to the urgency of protections for outdoor workers,” she wrote in a statement. “It is my hope that our State Legislators allow room for counties to regulate Heat Standards to protect workers who are the most vulnerable to heat.”

Florida's current heat protections

By law, Florida employers do not have to offer water, shade or rest to their employees. Federal law also does not explicitly require it but strongly suggests it.

The consequences of not providing a heat-safe workplace in Florida right now are a potential fine from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration over an employer’s “general duty” to keep workers safe.

Since 2020, OSHA has fined five Florida employers after their employees died from heat illness, deaths that the agency said could have been prevented if their employers had followed “established safety practices regarding heat-related hazards.” Another four employers were fined after their employees were hospitalized from heat-related illnesses, some with symptoms as severe as acute kidney failure.

Cristina Gomez, 35, looks on while working at a farm on Friday, April 21, 2023, in Homestead, Fla.
Matias J. Ocner
/
The Miami Herald
Cristina Gomez, 35, looks on while working at a farm on Friday, April 21, 2023, in Homestead.

OSHA is working on a heat protection standard for outdoor workers nationwide, but it could be years before the draft rule is introduced, much less enforced. Earlier this month, attorneys general from 10 states sent a letter to OSHA asking the agency to enforce at least a temporary standard of protection starting this summer.

“Recent political developments strongly suggest that the most heat-vulnerable states will not implement heat standards on their own, and at least two states have acted to preempt local ordinances aimed at protecting workers,” the letter reads. “By issuing an emergency temporary standard, however, OSHA could immediately resolve these inconsistencies across the states and provide a defined and uniform rule to protect farmworkers and construction workers from extreme heat.”

Critics of additional heat safety standards for outdoor workers say the current enforcement is enough, and Floridians don’t need additional laws at the state or local level.

Adam Johnson, a lobbyist from Associated Industries of Florida, told senators last week that heat is already a recognized hazard from OSHA, so no other regulations are necessary. “There are plenty of protections that are in place for workers from OSHA,” he said.

Street vendor Eddy Rivera is seen selling fruits and flowers near the intersection of Red Road and Northwest 138th St on Tuesday, May 2, 2023, in Miami Lakes, Fla.
Matias J. Ocner
/
The Miami Herald
Street vendor Eddy Rivera is seen selling fruits and flowers on Tuesday, May 2, 2023, in Miami Lakes.

Industry lobbyists, as well as Miami-Dade Commissioner Danielle Cohen Higgins, have pointed toward a 2021 case where OSHA fined a Central Florida sugar grower $81,000 for failing to maintain a heat-safe workplace as a sign that the agency already proactively monitors the issue.

OSHA records indicate that the 2021 fine was actually the second violation from Valley Produce Harvesting & Hauling over heat-related issues. In 2020, the company was fined $9,446 after an employee was hospitalized for heat stress. That next violation, the one with the $81,000 fine, came after a worker died in the field from heat stroke.

Advocates for outdoor workers say OSHA’s enforcement isn’t enough. Workers, and their families, tell stories about bosses and workplaces that don’t offer cool water or shaded breaks, which can lead to hospitalizations and deaths.

Maria Candelaria lost her husband — a 35-year-old Tampa-area construction worker – to heart failure four years ago. She said he started feeling ill after working a long day in 85-degree weather. His employer would not give workers water or shade breaks, she said.

While a copy of his death certificate reviewed by the Herald does not identify heat as a cause of death, Candelaria is certain it contributed to his heart failure, in part because he was generally in good health and the symptoms started after he was exposed to heat for a long period. Some experts believe the number of heat-related illnesses and deaths in Florida are significantly undercounted.

The workdays would get so hot that he got in the habit of bringing a change of clothes after so much sweating, she said. If he had had some awareness of the dangers of heat exposure, Candelaria believes he would still be alive.

“This wouldn’t have happened,” the mother of three said in an interview with the Miami Herald.

People raise their hands in support of the Miami-Dade Heat standard for outdoor workers during a Miami-Dade county commission Community Health Committee meeting prior to the vote on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, at Government Center in Miami. The bill would create protections for outdoor workers on hot days like water, shade, and breaks.
Alie Skowronski
/
The Miami Herald
People raise their hands in support of the Miami-Dade Heat standard for outdoor workers during a County Commission Community Health Committee meeting prior to the vote on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, at Government Center in Miami.

Advocacy groups for outdoor workers have been pushing for a statewide education bill on the dangers of working in the heat since 2018. This year’s version (HB 945) has yet to be heard in either the house or senate.

Margarita Romo, an 87-year-old community organizer from the Tampa area, came to Tallahassee this year to repeat a message she’s tried to share for nearly a decade: that employers need to be educated about the dangers of heat.

Romo said she knows firsthand the dangers heat can pose to people who work outside, including at nurseries, construction sites and farms. So much so, that she has personally given eulogies at workers’ funerals.

“I know their bosses didn’t want them to die, but it happened,” Romo told the Herald. “It wasn’t their time, and maybe it could have been avoided if they knew how to listen to their bodies and their bosses knew what to tell them.”

Lucia Quiej, center, field worker since 1993, attends a “¡Qué Calor!” rally by WeCount with her grandchildren calling for better working conditioning for outdoor workers before a Miami-Dade county commission Community Health Committee meeting on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, at Government Center in Miami. The committee was voting on a bill called the Miami-Dade Heat standard for outdoor workers that would would create protections for outdoor workers on hot days like water, shade, and breaks. Quiej wants her grandchildren to remember the importance of community and standing up for what is right.
Alie Skowronski
/
The Miami Herald
Lucia Quiej, center, field worker since 1993, attends a “¡Qué Calor!” rally by WeCount with her grandchildren calling for better working conditioning for outdoor workers before a Miami-Dade County Commission Community Health Committee meeting on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, at Government Center in Miami. Quiej wants her grandchildren to remember the importance of community and standing up for what is right.

Esteban Wood, director of policy for South Florida-based WeCount, said the stalled bill is even more frustrating in light of the bipartisan passage of the 2020 Zachary Martin Act, which required schools to provide water, rest and shade to student-athletes playing outside. Some of the same legislators that voted for that bill now refuse to support even a toothless education bill aimed at outdoor workers, Wood said.

“If you’re essentially buying into the science that tells us people can die when they exert themselves in high temperatures, then what is stopping you from accepting that same possibility with outdoor workers?” he said.

Two versions of legislation

While the heat education bill appears stalled, another bill that would block Miami-Dade or another government from enforcing heat standards is sailing along in Tallahassee.

The Senate version of the bill (SB 1492) would ban local governments from enforcing additional heat safety protections or asking future contractors to provide them when doing government projects. It passed favorably in two of its three committee hearings with support from lobbyists from the construction, home building and agriculture industries.

Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-Orange County), whose family has grown citrus for four generations, said in last week’s hearing that employers and employees already know how to stay cool in the Florida heat and don’t need additional regulations to enforce that.

“I don’t think we need a nanny government standing over any person who might get too hot today,” he said. “It’s overregulating.”

Juventino Custodio, 57, inspects a batch of spinach while working at his farm on Friday, April 21, 2023, in Homestead, Fla. MATIAS J. OCNER
Matias J. Ocner
/
The Miami Herald
Juventino Custodio, 57, inspects a batch of spinach while working at his farm on Friday, April 21, 2023, in Homestead,

Bill sponsor Sen. Jay Trumbull (R-Panama City) said his main goal is to avoid a patchwork of standards across the state.

“Yeah, it’s hot and there’s a lot of stuff we do outdoors in Florida when it’s hot, but I don’t think we should treat Broward County different than Bay County,” he said in the committee meeting.

The House version of the bill (HB 433) was the first version filed, one week after Miami-Dade’s heat ordinance was delayed. That version, by Rep. Tiffany Esposito (R-Fort Myers), went further than its house counterpart. It would preempt any local efforts but would also would require Florida to set its own heat protection standard if OSHA fails to do so by 2028. The Senate version has no requirement to set statewide standards.

Esposito, who did not respond to a request for comment from the Herald, also dramatically altered her bill after she first filed it to include another work-related preemption blocking local governments from requiring their contractors to pay employees anything above the state minimum wage.

That addition, as detailed in the Seeking Rents newsletter, was suggested by a lobbyist for the Florida Chamber of Commerce and written by a staffer at the Naples-based Foundation for Government Accountability, which also helped write parts of HB 49 that would roll back child labor laws.

Esposito has accepted $10,000 in political contributions from the Chamber, as well as other supporters of her bill, including $5,000 from the Associated Industries of Florida.

Her version of the bill, which now differs drastically from its Senate counterpart, was reviewed favorably by State Affairs Committee on Wednesday and is next slated to be heard by the Commerce Committee.

Miami Herald Staff Writer Ashley Miznazi contributed to this article.

Ashley Miznazi is a climate change reporter for the Miami Herald funded by the Lynn and Louis Wolfson II Family Foundation in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multinewsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.

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Alex Harris | Miami Herald
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