A sea of royal blue shirts filled the floor before the Miami-Dade County Commission on July 18. They belonged to dozens of outdoor workers with WeCount!’s ¡Que Calor! campaign demanding “agua, sombra, y descanso”—water, shade, and rest.
Miami commissioners held in their agenda legislation proposing what would be the nation’s first county-wide heat standard for outdoor workers.
“The demand of ¡Que Calor! is a step in the right direction for bringing dignity and respect for outdoor workers,” said Pedro Marcos Raymundo, one of the leaders of ¡Que Calor!. “But it’s not only about outdoor workers; it’s a step in the right direction for any and all workers.”
Raymundo is one of more than 200 workers organizing with WeCount!, a coalition of immigrant workers and families advocating for better labor conditions in South Florida. ¡Que Calor! unites workers across the outdoor industries to create solutions to the problems they are facing in the workplace. The heat standard laid out in 14A1 is one such solution.
The board voted unanimously to pass the first reading of 14A1, which would set a historic precedent for workers nationwide if implemented. The decision would provide much relief to a community of more than 100,000 outdoor workers laboring in industries like landscaping and roofing in Miami’s record-breaking heat.
A week later, President Joe Biden announced new measures to address extreme temperatures as record-breaking and deadly heat waves sweep the country. A hazard alert was issued for the very industries represented by ¡Que Calor!.
But the fight is not over. The Miami legislation will now go to the Community Health Committee for a public hearing review on Sept. 11. Meanwhile, ¡Que Calor! workers and sponsors urge the Miami community to show up in support.
The heat standard contains life-saving measures for outdoor workers. The urgency cannot be matched by bureaucracy, and sadly, two workers in Miami died of heat-related illness earlier this year.
“Outdoor workers right now do not have heat protections; they are not educated on heat-related illness,” said Raymundo. “That needs to change, and the reason is that these workers are essential workers, they drive the economy, they do the labor that pushes this community forward.”
The ¡Que Calor! campaign finally convinced Miami politicians to take action to improve working conditions after two years of advocacy. Meanwhile, in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill in June eliminating structured water breaks and rest for outdoor workers. Last year, Texas tallied the highest number of heat-related deaths in the state in two decades.
“Heat is called the silent killer because it can progress from something mild to something very dangerous very fast,” said Virginia Kondras, an ICU advanced nurse practitioner in Miami. Kondras is a member of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest union of caregivers in the state.
“The body is used to a state of equilibrium,” said Kondras. “When it hits a certain temperature, major organ systems, blood cells, muscle tissue, heart, liver, kidneys, brain, they’re not made to operate in that high degree of temperature, so they all get affected.”
Kondras urges workers and civilians alike to know the symptoms of heat stress, such as cramps, aches, and weakness, and to seek medical attention immediately.
Raymundo promotes the ¡Que Calor! campaign at every chance he gets, even recruiting from his local soccer team. He says the reason he is so invested is because he has experienced symptoms of heat stress himself and knows many colleagues who experience them regularly.
With such groundbreaking legislation, the road to implementation may be rocky, particularly among employers. It is common for outdoor workers to face verbal abuse from supervisors urging them to get back to work. Lunch breaks are the only paid periods of rest in the day, and even if water is provided, it may be unclean.
“That’s why it’s important to organize and educate the worker about the law: so when the worker is knowledgeable about protection, they can speak out,” Raymundo said.
The demands of the ¡Que Calor! campaign stem from the direct experience of dozens of workers and are backed by medical and legal professionals. In fact, their proposed heat standard mirrors much of what The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) lays out in its own published criteria for heat standards.
NIOSH recommends workplace education on heat illness, a medical monitoring system, and a work/rest schedule for employees. The criteria also suggests that workers limit heat stress exposure to no longer than 15 minutes for people performing physical labor when Wet Bulb Globe Temperatures (WBGT) reach beyond 86 degrees. WBGT is a measurement similar to the heat index that incorporates considerations such as heat absorbed by clothing to determine “thermal load” on a person.
These recommendations remain theoretical as long as there is no method for enforcement. That is where the ¡Que Calor! standard differs. One of the key demands is the formation of a new County Office of Workplace Health and Safety to enforce labor protections and implement heat safety protocols.
“What’s included in the legislation is a process to actually debar companies that routinely violate this new law and would prevent them from doing business with the county if they continue to violate the law,” said Esteban Wood, policy director at WeCount!.
Miami Dade was the world’s first city to create a chief heat officer position. Jane Gilbert was appointed in 2021, and one of her major projects involves pushing forward a longstanding goal to increase Miami’s tree canopy from 20% to 30% by 2030.
The initiative implemented a health assessment to determine where to invest protective measures by cross-checking emergency room visits and zip codes. The areas found to be at higher risk of heat stress are primarily low-income households and communities of color.
“We’ve targeted our interventions in those areas in terms of our education and outreach, in terms of our disaster preparedness, and in terms of our investments in tree canopy and cooling infrastructure,” Gilbert said in an interview with NPR last July.
This measure may help to address major racial disparities in urban heat stress. A June Department of Energy study found that people living in historically redlined neighborhoods would be exposed to higher outdoor heat stress.
On July 26, Miami Mayor Daniella Levine Cava convened with the Biscayne Bay Watershed Management Advisory Board to discuss the looming heat wave. She hopes to design a bay protection plan that jumps into effect with heat waves.
The board was formed in 2021 and includes professors from local universities, climate activists, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration representatives.
“What we’re seeing this summer is the highest temperatures on record for Biscayne Bay,” Dr. Chris Kelble told the panel. Kelble directs the ocean chemistry and ecosystems division at the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory.
This year is the first year with a new threshold for heat warnings and advisories in Miami Dade County, down three degrees from previous years. Instead of a heat index of 108 or higher for at least two hours, heat advisories are issued at 105.
Miami’s heat index broke 106 F for 13 straight days in the last month. Meanwhile, the ¡Que Calor! campaign continues its effort to protect workers against the brutal heat.
“Every week, we are going to work sites, plant nurseries, and construction sites and handing out safety material and literature on how to recognize the signs and symptoms of heat-related illness,” said Wood.
Scientists monitor eight-to-10 different sites along the bay weekly. In June, all of them recorded temperatures about 89 degrees. In July, they climbed up to 93 degrees. On July 11, scientists recorded the first signs of coral bleaching in Biscayne Bay. On July 24, Manatee Bay recorded a temperature of 101 degrees.
Several experts on the panel say they are keeping their eyes peeled for rainfall, which can result in changes to oxygen levels—the major factor in fishkills like 2022. Miami residents can now report signs of algae blooms and fishkills by calling the 24-hour Environmental Emergency line.
“Just like we prepare for hurricanes, we can prepare for heat,” said Cava at the Biscayne Bay Watershed Management Advisory Board roundtable.