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After helping kill heat law, a major Miami-Dade grower defends its worker safety

Employees classify plants ready for shipping in the packing area at the Costa Farms, in Homestead, on Friday, June 28, 2024.
Pedro Portal
/
The Miami Herald
Employees classify plants ready for shipping in the packing area at the Costa Farms, in Homestead, on Friday, June 28, 2024.

Costa Farms, one of the world’s largest ornamental plant growers and one of Miami-Dade’s biggest agricultural operations, led the charge to defeat a landmark county proposal intended to protect outdoor workers from extreme heat — a campaign the company acknowledges got it branded as “the bad guys.”

So with summer heat ramping up, Costa decided to open its doors to defend its treatment of the 2,760 employees who plant, fertilize, water, trim and ship its products. Company executives also pushed back at what they consider unfair, uninformed criticism, which includes a national advocacy group earlier this year putting it on a list of the worst places to work.

“Even though we’re a very large company, our employees are really the lifeline for our company,” said Jorge Zamora, Costa Farm’s staff attorney. “Which is why safety is such a priority for us.”

READ MORE:A Miami ER doctor on why you should take those 'extreme heat' warnings seriously

During a guided tour of parts of Costa’s headquarters — a sprawling site of open fields, green houses and packing facilities near the Redland region that is the heart of South Miami-Dade’s agricultural industry — company executives insisted they already follow safety standards going above and beyond the mandatory water, rest and shade rules in the now-dead county proposal.

They pointed out air-conditioned breakrooms for lunch and a trio of commercial ice machines, described a program to track health problems and a buddy system for workers to watch out for each other. They said they’d also taken additional new steps to combat temperatures that broke records last year in South Florida — like adding darker, cooler tarps over an open-air packing area. And they denied ever discouraging field workers from taking water breaks.

A Gatorade and a water coolers to keep workers hydrated during working hours are seeing next to a plant field at the Costa Farms, in Homestead, on Friday, June 28, 2024.
Pedro Portal
/
The Miami Herald
A Gatorade and a water coolers to keep workers hydrated during working hours are seeing next to a plant field at the Costa Farms, in Homestead, on Friday, June 28, 2024.

“Nobody is ever told you can’t drink water at any time,” said Cesar Martinez, senior director of environment, health, and safety at Costa Farms. “I don’t care if they’re out there in the middle of a full sun field working on plants if they want to stop and walk over to the car and get the cup and drink cold water they can.”

WeCount, a Homestead-based nonprofit that represents the interests of farm workers, said that the practices the company outlined were a positive step but did not go far enough. The biggest problems are that are no formal regulations and no outside agency monitors whether Costa or other growers fulfill pledges of protection, said Oscar Londoño, the executive director of WeCount.

“We are encouraged to hear that Costa Farms is taking proactive steps to protect their workers from extreme heat. But let me be clear: these protections are still not enough,” Londoño said. “To make these rights real and not just empty promises workers have to be at the table shaping and driving these solutions.”

Unlike some fruit groves and vegetable farms in Homestead, Costa Farms and most other plant nurseries are year-round operations, which exposes workers to the hottest summer months that pose the highest risk for health problems.

“If Costa Farms truly wants to truly protect their workers, and set an example for other employers in the plant industry, we invite them to meet with us,” Londoño said.

View of the the Costa Farms headquarters and the production plant including green houses in Homestead, on Friday, June 28, 2024.
Pedro Portal
/
The Miami Herald
View of the the Costa Farms headquarters and the production plant including green houses in Homestead, on Friday, June 28, 2024.

A previous heat-related death

WeCount, along with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and other groups, had campaigned for years for what would be the nation’s first formal regulations to protect workers from extreme heat. Miami-Dade County got as far as drawing up what would have been a first-of-its-kind ordinance but it fell into limbo under lobbying pressure from the agriculture and construction industries. The debate then moved to the Florida Legislature, which earlier this year wound up banning such rules statewide — only the latest “pre-emption” of local authority by Tallahassee’s Republican leadership. Gov. Ron DeSantis then signed a bill that effectively killed the county’s proposal.

READ MORE: The federal government proposes nationwide heat protections for workers

Costa was one of the most powerful and influential lobbyists against the Miami-Dade heat bill. Jose Smith, the CEO of Costa Farms, wrote in a Herald Op-Ed in Oct. 2023 that oversight from the county would be an “existential crisis” for the agriculture and construction industry and “a bottomless pit of red tape, lost time and money.”

That flexing of political muscle appears to be a primary reason the The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH), which is made up of 27 worker advocacy groups, put Costa Farms on its 2024 “Dirty Dozen” list of companies.

“These are unsafe and reckless employers, risking the lives of workers and communities by failing to eliminate known, preventable hazards – and in at least one case, actively lobbying against better protections for workers,” the group wrote in its annual report of the worst places to work.

Costa also lost one worker to a heat-related death two years ago, according to a report from the Occupational Safety and Health Adminstration. In May 2021, OSHA record show, a 44-year-old nursery worker who was separating and sorting plants passed out and became unresponsive and later died of heat exhaustion.

Costa said the federal agency, the only official watchdog for outdoor workers, did not cite it for any violations. The company also said it is also continuing to make the case that there were other factors that contributed to the heat death. The case is sealed with no additional information, including the nursery worker’s name. OSHA has cited other growers across the state for heat-related deaths, but companies typically face fines that range into no more than the tens of thousands.

Maintenance worker Pablo Zuniga fills a water cooler before heading to the field at a hydration station that includes signs with instructions for workers to "beat the heat" by staying hydrated while working at the Costa Farms, in Homestead, on Friday, June 28, 2024.
Pedro Portal
/
The Miami Herald
Maintenance worker Pablo Zuniga fills a water cooler before heading to the field at a hydration station that includes signs with instructions for workers to "beat the heat" by staying hydrated while working at the Costa Farms, in Homestead, on Friday, June 28, 2024.

New federal heat rules proposed

This week, OSHA did roll out what would be the nation’s first regulations requiring employers to provide such things as water and rest breaks when temperatures top certain thresholds.

The rules have been under development for years but recent refusals to enact heat safety measures by Florida and Texas adds to the urgency of implementing them, Ali Zaidi, the National Climate Advisor for the White House, told the Miami Herald.

“It’s increasingly important at a time when you have politicians who are willing to roll the dice on people’s health and safety,” Zaidi said. “The fact is the Florida and Texas governor is advancing policy that blocks not some environmental statute, not some ambitious climate law, but a very basic protection for humans that are facing increasingly severe conditions is deeply problematic. And that’s why President Biden is taking national action to set a baseline of standards that guarantees workers access to safer conditions, basic rights that are common sense.”

The draft rule would require supplying workers water when temperatures higher than 80 degrees and, when temperatures rise above 90 degrees, would include mandatory 15-minute breaks every two hours. Zaidi said the hope is the rules could go into effect as early as this year.

Zamora, Costa Farms’ attorney, said the company supports the OSHA rule changes. But it argued against Miami-Dade’s proposal for multiple reasons beyond mandating water and breaks. It only targeted the construction and agriculture industry, he said, would have made companies responsible for violations by contractors and created a new county bureaucracy to enforce regulations OSHA already was getting ready to roll out. It also potentially would have allowed for surprise visits from county inspectors, a level of oversight the industry considered unwarranted.

A sign with instructions for workers to “beat the heat” by staying hydrated while working is on display in the shipping area at the Costa Farms, in Homestead, on Friday, June 28, 2024.
Pedro Portal
/
The Miami Herald
A sign with instructions for workers to “beat the heat” by staying hydrated while working is on display in the shipping area at the Costa Farms, in Homestead, on Friday, June 28, 2024.

Adapting to rising temperatures

Even without regulations, Zamora said Costa continues to update its health oversight and heat protections.

Two years ago, Neyvi Medina joined the team as a full-time nurse practitioner with an office down the road. This summer, she said she is tracking by age, medical history and severity heat illnesses. So far, she said, there were four patients she tracked who needed some water, rest and electrolytes – but nothing escalated to the point of needing to call an ambulance.

Last year, Costa tracked 28 incidents of heat illness between June and August — most involving workers under the age of 38 and working with the company on average less than three years. This led to the creation of a buddy system, where older hires partnered with newer hires to look after each other.

Medina also trains every supervisor about heat safety and supervisors are asked to pass that on to workers. For example, the company says that every day the team has a five-minute huddle where they go over safety protocols before talking about efficiency or production goals for the day.

And it’s hard to ignore the warning signs. Everywhere you look at the central location, there was some sort of post about drinking water – in English, Spanish and Kreyol. Heat safety signs were hanging as full-size posters from the ceilings, posted on the bulletins and even taped onto the golf carts.

Two workers in a greenhouse area, Blanca Martinez and Maria Ramos, both from El Salvador, have worked for Costa Farms for more than 15 years and largely echoed their bosses’ talking points about the focus on heat safety.

“I’ve felt it’s been hotter this year but our supervisor recommends us to look out for each other,” Blanca Martinez said. “We take a break whenever we need to — or every row or two.”

A sign with the “10 Golden Rules” for workers to follow while working is display on a field of mascane and potho plants at the Costa Farms, in Homestead, on Friday, June 28, 2024.
Pedro Portal
/
The Miami Herald
A sign with the “10 Golden Rules” for workers to follow while working is display on a field of mascane and potho plants at the Costa Farms, in Homestead, on Friday, June 28, 2024.

Policies good on paper but ...

But two Costa workers provided by WeCount — one still there, another a past employee — said policies that sound good on paper were not always practiced in the fields and green houses. The Herald agreed not to name them.

“If we got sick they would tell us to leave and we wouldn’t have work the next day,” the former employee of more than 20 years said. “When my coworker and friend fainted on the job because there wasn’t water to drink I was the one who had to respond.”

A problem, she thought, was her plot of land was a five-minute drive away from a water station and employees were encouraged to “keep working.”

The current employee said she never has received heat training and had not yet heard about the buddy system but was given a handout about heat safety the day of the Herald’s visit. The only mandatory break she said she takes is a 15-minute break in the morning and a 30-minute break for lunch.

Last week she was working and felt a headache and started vomiting when she got home. She said when she got home and sat on her couch her head was pounding so hard she told her son she thought she might die. The next day she went back to work.

“Even if I feel bad what am I supposed to do? I need to pay my bills, phone, and everything else. If I don’t work who’s going to pay my bills?” she said.

The company has a hot-line to report issues but the worker say they’re worried that calling it could cost them their jobs because the company, not an outside regulator, is the one that responds.

Zamora said Costa Farms supervisors are told to adjust work schedules, stop work early or increase breaks when the temperatures gets too scorching. But at a certain point, he said, workers also need to look out for themselves.

“We can tell them all we want what to do but ultimately it does come down to personal responsibility,” Zamora said.

As for critics who say the company doesn’t do enough for its workers, he said, allowing miserable conditions would be “counter productive” for the bottom line of Costa Farms. It’s hard to find people willing to work in sweltering heat, he said, and it’s in the best interests of the company to maintain a healthy, happy workforce.

“We are facing a labor shortage and its difficult for us to fill jobs at peak season,“ he said. “One of the things in putting together a work environment that people love is that they’re going to stay with us. There are a million places to work around here, we don’t want people not coming back to work.”

Ashley Miznazi is a climate change reporter for the Miami Herald funded by the Lynn and Louis Wolfson II Family Foundation in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.

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