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Activists want Miami-Dade commissioners to back protections for outdoor workers in extreme heat

Activists hold signs during a protest outdoors
Julia Cooper
Catalina Mayorga (left) and Lucia Qiej (right), who are both plant nursery workers, listen to speakers during a press conference at the WeCount! "water strike" held Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023 at Miami-Dade County's government center lawn. Mayorga peers under several layers of cooling cloths as Qiej dawns a wide-brimmed hat. Both sat outside from the hours of 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. without drinking water during a demonstration to urge commissioners to pass a first-of-its-kind outdoor worker heat protections measure.

Miami's persistent high temperatures and heat — even in October — are helping hammer home why Miami-Dade commissioners should approve an ordinance to protect the 100,000 agriculture and construction employees required to work outdoors, say South Florida activists.

For several hours on Tuesday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., demonstrators sat outside of Government Center in downtown Miami to call attention to the need for employers in the state's biggest county to give workers access to clean drinking water and shaded rest breaks. They did not drink water during those five hours in solidarity with outdoor workers.

If passed by Miami−Dade commissioners, the measure would be the first of its kind nationwide to offer such worker protections, say the activists. The commission is scheduled to vote on the ordinance in two weeks, Tuesday, Oct. 17.

"Without these workers, Miami-Dade County would be nothing," Esteban Wood, the policy director for WeCount! said. "It's incredibly important for people to understand the importance of these protections and the importance of protecting all workers. No matter who you are, where you come from, what you look like, people deserve basic dignity and respect."

He said that WeCount! hopes to see changes to the ordinance happen before the final vote. Since the ordinance was unanimously passedon its first reading last July, the language of the ordinance has been changed slightly. Originally, protections would kick in when the heat index reached 90 degrees. Now, the proposal calls for high-heat procedures to be implemented when "outdoor temperature equals or exceeds 95 degrees Fahrenheit."

"As is currently written it only covers workers in agriculture and construction," he said.

The Miami Herald reported last week that lobbyists for those businesses opposed to the measure pushed to raise the temperature to 95 degrees, a weather condition that is not typical in Miami-Dade.

WeCount! also hopes to see resources be explicitly diverted to enforcement of the ordinance by allocating a line-item in the county budget toward the heat safety program. He said this would ensure the county has the resources and man-power to effectively investigate violations of the ordinance.

"This is really a matter of life and death for many of these workers especially those workers who are routinely denied water breaks at work," Wood said.

In a statement to WLRN on Tuesday, Dade County Farm Bureau Executive Director Jocelyn Guilfoyle, accused activists of "communicating a false narrative" about the treatment of workers in the agriculture and construction business. They oppose the ordinance.

"Our employees are the backbone of our businesses, and we treat them with dignity, respect, and care," she said, noting that their outdoor workers get "regular access to clean drinking water and shaded areas for breaks."

"This proposed ordinance is overreaching and without merit, as we already comply with national standards from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is required by all U.S. construction and agricultural companies."

County commissioners unanimously passed the ordinance on its first reading last July. Last month, the county’s community health committee approved it.

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

The commission proposal calls for a three-tiered system of protecting outdoor workers from extreme heat conditions. First, the proposed ordinance, which has been revised since it was first approved, would grant outdoor workers the right to a ten-minute rest in the shade for every two hours worked when outdoor temperatures rise above 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

It also requires that employers of 5 or more outdoor agriculture and construction workers supply safe, clean drinking water sources. The county to also required to publish multilingual heat safety educational materials including employee rights.

The commission’s vote over the summer followed a series of stories published in July by the Miami Herald, "Sizzling South Florida," that documented the deadly consequences of extreme heat caused by climate change on those working outdoors and the overall South Florida economy.

People in hats and blue shirts that say WeCount! sit in a semi-circle around a man in a medical coat standing at a podium.
Julia Cooper
"Water strikers" sit in a semi-circle around a podium where Dr. David Woolsey speaks about his experience treating heat-related illnesses at a demonstration Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023 in front of Miami-Dade County's government center. Woolsey is an emergency physician with the Jackson Health System.

This summer, the U.S., along with other northern hemisphere countries, witnessed record temperatures. July and August were the hottest months in recorded history by scientists and major U.S. and international climate and weather services ever recorded.

Dr. David Woolsey is an emergency physician at Jackson Memorial Hospital. He attended part of Tuesday's demonstration and spoke during the press conference. Anecdotally, he said this summer was the highest number of cases involving heat-related illnesses he's seen come through the hospital.

"I'm here because these essential workers are asking our community to stand up for them," Woolsey said. "I've been doing this for 30+ years and this summer I've seen more cases of heat illness than I've seen probably in my whole career."

Woolsey says that a lot of the heat-related medical cases he sees are preventable. He says that with proper hydration as well as shade and rest opportunities to cool off, it's easier to stave off the more serious effects associated with illnesses like heat syncope and heat stroke.

"The real danger of morbidity and death from heat illness comes when you ignore the beginning stages of it," he said. "I can't imagine what (outdoor workers) are going through knowing that they're going to work risking their lives and that there are ways we could prevent that."

This story was originally published on Oct. 3, at 6 a.m.

Julia Cooper reports on all things Florida Keys and South Dade for WLRN.
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