Crystal clear waters, vibrant nightlife, art deco architecture, the intoxicating aroma of tropical fruit orchards, and exquisite Cuban coffee are just some of the images, smells, and flavors associated with Miami, Florida. But the magical city also has a less pleasant side: scorching heat that intensifies every year. According to the Miami-Dade County government, the city has experienced an average increase in days above 90 °F (32.2 °C) from 84 days per year in 1970 to 133.
Outdoor workers are among the most affected. Gardeners, farmers, day laborers, and construction workers all lack local, federal, and state regulations that guarantee them shade, periodic breaks, and water.
José Delgado is a 74-year-old agricultural worker in Miami. He has been hospitalized twice in the past six years due to heatstroke caused by exposure to high temperatures while working outside.
“I still fear for my life due to the intense heat, but I need to keep working and put food on the table,” he said.
Javier Torres, a house painter, fell from a second-story ladder after nearly passing out, “and that happened because of the intensity of the heat,” he said.
Martha Gabriel works in a plant nursery. She highlighted the importance of the work done by immigrants in this industry. “If we don’t work, there is no food for other people,” she said.
A study from the University of Florida revealed that between 2010 and 2020, there were 215 heat-related deaths in Florida, and each year in Miami-Dade, at least 34 people die due to extreme heat. County authorities estimate that heat-related economic losses amount to $10 billion each year, mainly because of the loss of productivity among workers. According to another study, that number could double in the next 30 years.
“Extreme heat is a silent killer. It is the leading cause of death related to climate-related disasters,” warned Jane Gilbert, Miami-Dade’s chief heat officer. “We also have the highest number of outdoor workers of any county in Florida.” Gilbert became the world’s first chief heat officer in 2021.
The agricultural industry in Miami-Dade County is one of the most diverse in the country, employing over 20,000 people and generating over $2.7 billion in economic impact each year.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava is also worried. “Those who live here and those who visit us will have to deal with these temperatures, and it will only get worse,” she said. ”By the middle of this century, we are projected to be the county with the highest temperature increase in the United States.”
An investigation by the Atlantic Council estimates that heat exposure causes over 8,500 deaths in the United States each year. According to the study, these deaths are associated with daily average temperatures above 90 °F (approximately 32 °C), and these victims are concentrated in the country’s hottest areas.
Florida leads the nation in heat-related injuries, with over 684 heat-related hospitalizations reported in the summer months of 2021 alone. In Miami-Dade County, there were 40 hospitalizations during the same period.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most heat-related illnesses and deaths can be prevented.
We Count! is an organization that focuses on representing and empowering low-wage immigrant workers and families in Miami-Dade County. Its members, who are workers and immigrant families, play a vital role in building the organization. Through active participation and fee payments, they contribute to the community’s growth and development. The main goal of “We Count!” is to ensure that the voices of its members are heard and their rights are protected.
According to We Count!’s website, 327,321 people work outdoors in Miami-Dade County.
¡Qué calor! (What heat!)
In 2021, the organization launched the ¡Qué calor! (What heat!) campaign, an initiative led by outdoor workers to obtain protections that could save their lives when they’re subjected to extreme heat. “In their daily work, these workers can experience thermal stress and heat-related illnesses such as fatigue, dehydration, muscle cramps, organ failure, and even death,” said Esteban Wood, the policy director of We Count!
“We want to educate not only the workers but also business owners on how to treat these employees, have safety programs to deal with high temperatures, and know what to do in the worst-case scenarios, such as when a worker collapses,” Wood said.
“Our members work long hours in scorching temperatures. They have courage and strength. But what they don’t have is a common-sense heat standard, a model of best practices to address the dangers of heatstroke.”
According to Wood, the political director of We Count!, agricultural workers, day laborers, construction workers, and gardeners are 35 times more likely to die due to extreme heat exposure than the general population.
Florida is number 37 in labor protection
Florida ranks 37th in terms of worker protection, according to Oxfam’s report “Best and Worst States to Work in the United States 2022.” According to the report, Florida “does not provide a heat safety standard for outdoor workers.” Behind these statistics lie tragic stories that illustrate the real consequences of this lack of protection.
On July 30, 2021, while working in the Apalachicola National Forest as temperatures approached 100 degrees, a 42-year-old worker was sweating heavily, trembling, and seemed confused. Thirty minutes later, a supervisor found the man unconscious. With no cell phone signal, the other workers had to seek help from a ranger station 14 miles away from the work site. By the time an ambulance arrived, the worker had stopped breathing, and the paramedics couldn’t find a pulse. Shortly after, he was transported to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
These cases are common, especially for undocumented workers
An agricultural worker working in Homestead recounted the precarious situation he faces in protecting himself from the sun during his workday. He asked to remain anonymous due to his immigration status. “The only solution I found to shield myself from the sun is lying under the truck that transports us to work,” he said.
The situation for undocumented immigrants in Florida has become even more precarious after Gov. Ron DeSantis approved Senate Bill 1718. This legislation requires hospitals to collect and share information about patients’ immigration status and allocates $12 million to transfer undocumented immigrants to other states.
In 2022, Florida’s lawmakers introduced Senate Bill 732. “The intention of this bill is to provide consistent standards for employers and employees on how to prevent heat-related illnesses, recognize signs of heat-related illnesses, and what measures to take,” said Republican Sen. Ana María Rodríguez when it was introduced on the Senate floor. The bill died in the Senate Health Policy Committee.
Protections in other states are also in danger
At present, only three states have passed laws that protect outdoor workers: California, Oregon, and Washington. Colorado also has some laws in place, but they apply only to agricultural workers.
In California, employers must provide adequate shade and fresh drinking water to outdoor workers when the temperature exceeds 80°F (26.6°C). When the temperature rises above 95°F (35°C), employers must implement high-temperature procedures, which include providing additional shade, rest periods, and training for employees and supervisors.
Although Texas faces record-breaking heat, local rules in Austin and Dallas that required construction workers to take water breaks will no longer exist after Texan Gov. Greg Abbott approved a law that eliminates these municipal and county ordinances.
The first workplace heat standard
During the summer of 2005, a severe heat wave raised temperatures to scorching triple-digit levels, resulting in the tragic deaths of four agricultural workers in the fields of central California.
The United Farm Workers, in collaboration with Rep. Judy Chu, who at the time was a member of the California State Assembly, successfully persuaded Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to issue the country’s first comprehensive standards to protect agricultural workers and other outdoor workers in California from heat. “Later in 2015, we worked with Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown to strengthen these standards and their enforcement. These regulations have saved countless lives and should now be implemented nationwide,” said Teresa Romero, president of the United Farm Workers, after the introduction of the federal Heat Illness Prevention and Fatality Bill in 2019.
This bill instructs the U.S. Department of Labor to require employers to implement certain measures to protect workers from heat stress and related illnesses or injuries. However, hopes for prompt nationwide implementation are low, as the average time to implement new standards is approximately seven years.
There is hope
On July 18, 2023, two weeks after two workers who were working outdoors in South Florida died amid a historic heat wave, construction workers and agricultural workers mobilized for a meeting with Miami-Dade County commissioners. Also in attendance were religious leaders, healthcare workers, construction unions, and community leaders to advocate for the implementation of a county-level Miami-Dade heat standard for the first time in history.
This standard would add lifesaving labor protections, such as guaranteed access to water and breaks in shaded areas. “On July 6th, a 28-year-old man passed away and his employer was responsible for his death for not allowing him to drink water during the workday,” said Alejandro Pérez, an outdoor worker and activist. “Do we deserve that?”
Francisco Chávez and Miguel Ceto are agricultural workers who arrived in the U.S. less than a year ago from Guatemala and work in Homestead. “I never imagined that in the first world, we would not be protected from extreme heat,” Ceto said. “We cannot live at the mercy of our employers; some are fair, but others are not.”
‘We need a standard that provides us with rest, shade, and water,” Chávez said.
Despite this reality, he said he is better off than in his home country. “It is always worth coming here and making an effort to support our families who stayed there,” Chávez said. “We do not know how long we will stay in the U.S. We live with hope, and we simply take it one day at a time
The commission will vote in September on these labor protections and if approved, the law will go into effect 30 days later.