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Miami-Dade’s worker heat protection bill was a milestone. Lobbyists are watering it down

Arianna Cabrera de Oña, chief people officer and general counsel at Costa Farms, spoke against the Miami-Dade heat standard for outdoor workers at a Sept. 11 meeting of the county commission’s Community Health Committee.
Alie Skowronski
The Miami Herald
Arianna Cabrera de Oña, chief people officer and general counsel at Costa Farms, spoke against the Miami-Dade heat standard for outdoor workers at a Sept. 11 meeting of the county commission’s Community Health Committee.

When it was introduced in July, a landmark Miami-Dade County bill proposed heat safety regulations that would have protected outdoor workers for nearly half the year.

After negotiations with lobbyists in the construction and agriculture industries, the latest version of the bill — scheduled for a final vote before the County Commission next month — would take effect for less than five days a year, on average.

That big change is the result of a small but critical edit construction and agriculture lobbyists requested. The original wording would have required companies to give outdoor workers water and breaks on days with a 90 degree heat index, a standard that blends the impacts of temperature and humidity. The current version would now kick in when only the air temperature hits 95 degrees — a much rarer occurrence in Miami.

READ MORE: Push to give outdoor workers extreme heat protections passes first hurdle in Miami-Dade

In an open letter to the county commission this week, a group of 88 doctors, nurses, medical students and other scientists urged a return to the tougher standard. “We disagree with this change and ask that the Commission uphold the original threshold of 90°F heat index,” they wrote. “This substitution would fundamentally alter how often employers would be required to provide water, rest, and shade to workers and would be inconsistent with the National Weather Service’s guidelines.”

WeCount, a group that represents outdoor workers and has been lobbying in favor of the heat standard for two years, agrees.

“Because of the humidity here in South Florida, it’s important to make sure that we’re accounting for the kind of temperature that will protect outdoor workers,” said Oscar Londoño, executive director of WeCount. “The science is very clear. Doctors, nurses, physicians, climate scientists are in consensus that at a 90 degree heat index outdoor workers are at deadly risk of experiencing heatstroke on the job.”

But the Dade County Farm Bureau, which represents local farm owners and is lobbying against the bill, says the proposed regulations are unnecessary at any temperature.

“Farming is hard enough as it is,” wrote Jocelyn Guilfoyle, executive director of the Dade County Farm Bureau, in an email. “The last thing we need is to be subject to the Miami-Dade Heat Police. The ordinance should focus on educating employers and employees as to best practices, not on penalizing farmers.”

Switching the heat threshold is the most consequential of a series of changes industry representatives have successfully lobbied for, including reducing fines for companies that break the rules, weakening the water and break requirements and delaying the implementation of the rules from 10 days after the bill is passed to 180 days.

It’s possible the bill could change further before the final vote. After commissioners approved the changes at a Sept. 11 meeting of the commission’s Community Health Committee, the bill’s main sponsor, Kionne McGhee, said he would leave the final text of the bill up to negotiations between industry lobbyists and worker groups led by WeCount.

READ MORE: PolitiFact FL: Can novel solutions address ‘urban heat islands’?

“I don’t know exactly what version they’re going to bring me because I’m leaving it to the stakeholders to bring me the version,” McGhee said. He later added, “Whatever they bring back to me, I am going to file that.”

McGhee clarified that he does have a few key requirements for the final product. “Whatever version they bring back, it better have protection for heat, it better have water opportunities, it better have shade, and it better have liability and also enforcement.”

Since then, negotiators from industry groups and labor unions have been meeting privately to debate further changes the bill. These negotiations are not subject to Florida’s sunshine laws, which require that the public have access to meetings between government officials about public business. McGhee said this week he had no updates to share on the progress of the negotiations.

But during the Sept. 11 public hearing, a dozen speakers — representing industry groups including the Dade County Farm Bureau and the Builders Association of South Florida, along with big farmers and developers including Costa Farms and the Related Group — explained their opposition to the bill. They argued they already look after worker welfare and that the county proposal adds more government red tape.

“A majority of commercial construction contractors are small businesses,” said Carlos Carillo, executive director of the South Florida chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America. “The last thing they need is another agency from Miami-Dade County overseeing their work and their safety track records and policies which are already overseen by [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)].”

“The health and safety of our workers is our top priority for our farmers and our nursery owners,” said Guilfoyle. “Our workforce is one of our greatest assets, [which is] the reason why we follow the current standards that are already in place [and] do everything we can to take care of our employees.”

Authorities have confirmed that two outdoor workers have died on the job in South Florida so far this year, although doctors and medical researchers say official statistics likely undercount work-related heat deaths. In South Florida, there are no workplace safety laws that specifically address heat at the local, state or federal level, despite the dangerous conditions for outdoor workers and the rising temperatures brought on by climate change.

Raising the heat thresholds
The biggest battle between lobbyists is about how to define a hot day in Miami. Worker groups and medical professionals want the bill to take effect on days when the heat index hits 90 degrees, while industry lobbyists want the rules to kick in when the air temperature hits 95 degrees.

Chart showing Miami Heat index
Brian McNoldy
University of Miami
Since 1981, Miami has had an average of 165 days per year where the heat index reaches 90 degrees or higher. (Note: 2023 data is incomplete and only includes days up to Sept. 24.)

This one number makes all the difference. From 1981-2023, the heat index hit 90 degrees or above in Miami 165 days a year on average, which is roughly five and a half months out of the year, according to University of Miami climate researcher Brian McNoldy. Over that same historical period, air temperature reached 95 degrees or higher 4.7 days a year, on average — although in this year’s record-breaking heat, it has happened 25 times so far.

Chart of Miami Air Temperature
Brian McNoldy
University of Miami
Since 1981, Miami has had an average of 4.7 days per year where the air temperature reaches 95 degrees or higher. (Note: 2023 data is incomplete and only includes days up to Sept. 24.)

Depending on the number lawmakers choose, the bill could hold sway through most of Miami’s swampy summer or practically never.

“Choosing between those two thresholds would make a huge difference since the air temperature rarely hits 95,” McNoldy wrote in an email. “Days that hot are generally record or near-record setting. But it does happen, and it happened a record number of times this year.”

The heat index combines air temperature and humidity readings to tell you how hot it feels outside in the shade. High humidity makes it harder for our bodies to cool themselves off by sweating, since sweat doesn’t evaporate as quickly in humid air. That’s why the National Weather Service bases its heat warnings on the heat index, not air temperature.

The weather service urges “extreme caution” when the heat index rises above 90 degrees, because people who have “prolonged exposure” to the heat or are doing physical activity are at risk of heat stroke, heat cramps, or heat exhaustion. Outdoor workers fall under this at-risk category, as the Sept. 25 open letter from doctors, nurses, and medical students pointed out.

“Those of us who are health professionals have seen the precipitous increase in emergency room visits, and patients being rushed into our clinics to receive care because of the heat,” the group wrote. “If we do not create common-sense enforceable protections for outdoor workers in high-incident industries like agriculture and construction it is likely that we will see more emergency room visits, heat illness, and even death.”

Watering down fines and liability
The latest version of the bill also reduces the penalties for breaking the rules and shrinks the group of bosses that can be held accountable for denying workers water or breaks.

Almost every fine has been reduced, and every fine schedule now includes a warning for a company’s first violation. The biggest fines, for bad behavior including retaliating against workers for asking for water or breaks, have been cut from $3,000 to $2,000 per violation. And it narrows who would have to pay a fine if a worker doesn’t get water or a break on a hot day. For instance, on a construction site, only the subcontractor that hires a worker would be fined — not the general contractor or the company that hired the general contractor.

Limiting liability and lowering fines were two of industry groups’ main demands.

“As presented, unfortunately, the legislation has a chain of liability issue, has practical applicability issues, targets only two industries…and ultimately it really focuses on disproportionate, overly punitive fines and penalties,” said Nelson Stabile, president of the Builders Association of South Florida and a principal at the real estate investment company Integra Investments, at the Sept. 11 public hearing for the bill.

The latest version of the bill also includes small tweaks to the language that lays out companies’ responsibilities to give workers water and breaks.

Basically, if workers don’t ask their bosses for a break, their bosses don’t have to give them one. But workers’ advocates point out that many workers don’t want to draw attention to themselves for fear of being fired or reported to immigration authorities — especially after the Florida legislature passed a law in June designed to crack down on undocumented immigrants working in the state.

“In South Florida, workers are scared to speak up when they’re under attack from anti-immigrant laws,” said Sonia Moreno of the Florida Immigrant Coalition. “As a result, the most vulnerable communities are scared to even ask for a break to go to the bathroom or drink water because they’re afraid of being marginalized because of their immigration status.”

“Do you think that a worker is going to have the balls to go up to el patrón and ask him for a 10-minute break?” said Richard Quincoces, an organizer for the Laborers International Union of North America, which represents construction workers. “They’re afraid to get fired.”

This climate report is funded by Florida International Universityand the David and Christina Martin Family Foundationin partnership with Journalism Funding Partners. The Miami Herald retains editorial control of all content.

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