Outdoor workers in Miami are organizing for a countywide heat standard

Marta Gabriel has been picking tomatoes in Homestead, Florida, since she arrived from Guatemala five years ago. She didn’t know how hot and grueling conditions would be, but the job guaranteed her money that she could use to support her growing family as a mother of young children. However, after she nearly fainted from heat exhaustion and then suffered heatstroke while bending down to cut tomatoes, Gabriel realized her working conditions were not sustainable. She was already a member of WeCount!, a coalition of immigrant workers in southern Florida, and shared her concerns with organizers.

Hundreds of thousands of other outdoor workers across South Florida share Gabriel’s experience. Starting in 2017, they began telling organizers at WeCount! that heat had become an issue. Now, construction workers, farm workers, and other outdoor workers across Miami-Dade County are fighting for a countywide heat standard to ensure workers are protected from the deadly rising temperatures on the frontlines of climate change and extreme heat.

As it stands, workers in southern Florida are forced to work outside in the extreme heat without any local, state, or federal heat standards. WeCount!’s “¡Que Calor!” campaign (Spanish for “it’s so hot!”) is hoping to enact a heat standard similar to the one states like California, Washington, or Oregon, have already implemented—one that highlights the need for water, shade, and rest for workers. Led by those most impacted by the problem—farm workers, plant nursery workers, day laborers, and construction workers—¡Qué Calor! is building a grassroots movement for climate, health, and labor justice.

“We have faced so many problems,” Gabriel said. “That is why we are demanding these laws and protections.”

After suffering heatstroke, Gabriel started working in a shaded nursery. However, after hours in the nursery enclosed by a mesh tarp and without air conditioning, Gabriel felt like she could no longer breathe. Her cheeks became red, and she was dripping with sweat. She sought the man in charge, who told her to step outside and then return to work.

“They don’t help you,” Gabriel said. “When you start drinking water, and if the boss or the manager sees you standing there for a minute or two, they reprimand you and tell you to get back to work. They don’t worry about your life.”

Overall, 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 living in Miami-Dade County from heat -related illness each year.

One worker with WeCount!, Sandra Ascensio, worked in a plant nursery for 16 years. In 2008, she suffered heatstroke, began vomiting, and had to be rushed to the hospital and given an IV to rehydrate. A year ago, she discovered WeCount! and has been advocating for a heat standard ever since.

“I realized that even if you don’t have papers in this country, you should also be protected,” said Ascensio. “You have to know your human rights; that’s why they exploit you in the nursery.”

In 2019, WeCount! attempted fighting for statewide legislation for a heat standard, but the bill never advanced. In 2021, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced the first-ever chief heat officer, Jane Gilbert, to help the county prepare for and adjust to the effects of extreme heat. In May 2022, WeCount! advocated for the first heat season, after studies showed that extreme heat events more than doubled from 2018 to 2019. Now, with support from Mayor Levine-Cava, WeCount! hopes to pass the county-wide heat standard and bring better conditions to outdoor workers who are regularly exploited. One worker, Alejandro Perez, along with a group of eight workers, suffered wage theft for nine months from his employer in the roofing industry in addition to inhumane heat conditions.

“Imagine suffering at work under this great heat that is happening,” said Perez. “Imagine that the employer won’t even pay us. That is what we are angry about right now. We have already suffered so much working with this employer, and he has not wanted to pay us.”

According to Oscar Londoño, co-executive director of WeCount!, the legislation would cover a majority of outdoor industries, including agriculture, construction, and landscaping, and would create a baseline standard that all employers have to meet when the temperature reaches a 90 degree Fahrenheit heat index and above. In those conditions, employers will have to implement a heat exposure safety program, where employees and their supervisors are trained on the risks and symptoms of heat illness, how to identify if someone is experiencing a heat illness incident, and what first aid measures to take to ensure workers are protected on the job. This program would be available in multiple languages, specifically the ones that many Miami-Dade County outdoor workers speak, such as English, Spanish, Haitian Creole, and additional Indigenous languages.

Finally, the legislation will delineate certain rights, such as access to cool, safe drinking water that is readily accessible to workers throughout the day. As it stands, many workers face dirty, inaccessible, or nonexistent drinking water on the job. Gabriel said she would have to buy and carry her own while she worked. With a heat standard in place, workers would have the right to stop every couple of hours to cool down and rehydrate; Londoño said the baseline should be a 10-minute rest break every two hours. If employers do not comply, workers will be able to file complaints, leading to penalties for those that are found putting workers at risk.

“We think that there’s no effective access to water if workers don’t have the right to take a break to drink that water,” Londoño said.

Moving forward, WeCount! hopes to secure a county commissioner to sponsor the legislation and build public support. Beyond the legislative and political fight, according to Londoño, WeCount! has harnessed a bottom-up movement of outdoor workers who see themselves as leaders and are willing to demand of the government, and their employers, what they deserve.

“Dying is the biggest concern of ours,” said Gabriel. “Because we are workers, we are migrants, they can humiliate us, and they can put us to do more work. But if you go to the supermarkets, that is where you will see all the fruits, all the vegetables. Who is responsible for all of that? The workers are, the immigrants are.”

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