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


May 15, 2024

 

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.

 

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.”

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