Farmworkers and construction workers in Miami-Dade County secured a historic victory this month when the County Commission Community Health Committee approved a heat standard for outdoor workers. If the full Board of County Commissioners (BCC) approves the bill, it will mark the first heat standard for workers in the nation. Hundreds of outdoor workers, faith leaders, labor unions, and health care professionals attended the Sept. 11 Community Health Committee meeting where the decision was being heard.
The proposed Miami-Dade Heat Standard as part of WeCount!’s ¡Que Calor! campaign includes a heat exposure safety program for workers and their supervisors about the risks of heat exposure and best practices for minimizing heat-related illness. The standard also states that on days with a heat index of at least 90 degrees, workers have a right to 10 minutes of paid rest and a water break every two hours to cool down under shade and avoid heat stroke. If passed, the county will enforce labor protections and support employers and workers with implementing heat safety protocols that can prevent heat-related illness and save lives.
“Sometimes [the managers] don’t let you drink water because if you drink water, you go to the bathroom, and they don’t let you go to the bathroom,” said Mariola, a farmworker and organizer with WeCount! who asked to withhold her last name to protect her identity. “If the boss is watching, they start yelling at you. That is the problem we have here.”
Mariola has worked at different plant nurseries in Homestead, Florida, for 17 years since she immigrated from Guatemala. She works 12 hours straight in the grueling sun for $11 an hour. Mariola said there are no trees or shady spots to seek refuge from during the work day.
“When you’re at work, there’s nowhere for you to go if you’re fainting or feel dizzy in the sun,” she said.
Mariola said she was fired from a plant nursery a year ago for seeking shade under a tree that was far away from the nursery.
“They fired me from my job because I couldn’t take it anymore,” Mariola said. “I felt dizzy, and I didn’t know if it was the sun. I went to look for a tree far away, and I went to drink water. But when the owner of the company arrived, he told me to go home and that there was no more work for me …There [was] no law. But if there is a law, they will obey; how can they not?”
Special interests from the construction industry attended the meeting to attempt to block the law, but the overwhelming support from the farmworker and labor communities outnumbered them.
On July 18, the Miami-Dade BCC introduced and unanimously approved the first reading of the historic legislation to protect about 100,000 outdoor workers from extreme heat. If it is enacted by the full commission, this countywide legislation, co-sponsored by Commissioners Marleine Bastien and Kionne McGhee, will be the first of its kind in the U.S. and will guarantee water, shade, and rest breaks for workers in agriculture and construction.
“I want to talk about the fact that it’s hot outside,” said Dr. Armen Henderson during public testimony on July 18 at the BCC hearing in support of the Miami-Dade Heat Standard for Outdoor Workers. “It’s the hottest it’s ever been recorded on earth, and because of that, at the clinics that I run in Miami-Dade, we’re seeing more and more people coming in with diseases and illnesses related to heat stress. I’m seeing it in real-time.”
WeCount!’s ¡Que Calor! campaign has led advocacy for heat protections for nearly two years. This summer, South Florida experienced record-breaking heat advisories and heat indexes exceeding 100 degrees. Outdoor workers have been on the front lines of this public health emergency, which has cost the lives of workers like Efrain López García and led to increased 911 emergency calls for heat exhaustion and stroke, according to a report by the Miami Herald.
“The demand that is being made is to have water, shade and rest, which is the most basic thing that a human being can have,” said construction worker Javier Torres, the leader of the ¡Que Calor! campaign.
Torres says he fell from a ladder while doing construction work on a building about 10 years ago due to excessive heat. His doctors said it was a miracle he did not break any bones.
“We can take precautions so that we do not have accidents like that again,” said Torres.
More than 65,000 people visit the emergency room for heat-related stress a year, and about 700 die from heat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Florida specifically, heat drove more than 6,800 people to the emergency room in 2019, a 35% increase from the roughly 5,000 heat-related ER visits in 2010. A recent study found an average of 34 people die in Miami-Dade County from heat-related illness each year.
Outside the BCC meeting, local artists Agua Dulce, the collective Caribe Pouvwa, and Norma Uriostegui arranged an altar to the farmworkers who have died in South Florida. The altar featured offerings of fruit and memorable items left by family members of the deceased.
“The altar was collectively built … to remember outdoor workers lost to the dangerous heat they were exposed to on the job with little to no protection from it,” said Uriostegui, a WeCount! ally and Miami Workers Center organizer who contributed floral arrangements to the altar. “To me, it matters as the daughter of an outdoor worker and an ally of the workers that this standard mainly impacts … These workers need a heat standard that can actually change their work conditions, their chances of life and death while on the job, concretely and not symbolically.”
The altar took two-to-three hours to complete and was created in Government Center as a reminder of the impact that county commissioners have on this “life or death” issue for workers.
“We do not want more dead,” said Marta Gabriel, a WeCount! farmworker organizer. “That is why we have created the altar.”
The heat standard will be heard again for a final vote before the full Board of County Commissioners in October.