Florida Republicans Want to Ban Workplace Heat Protections

Florida business groups and their GOP allies are pushing legislation that would prevent communities from establishing workplace heat-exposure standards or compelling employers to abide by them, even as dangerously hot days increase in frequency.

Construction workers during a heat wave in Miami, Florida, July 25, 2023. (Eva Marie Uzcategui / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

On the first day of 2023, a twenty-eight-year old vegetable harvester reported for his first shift on a farm in southeastern Florida’s Broward County. Later that day, having complained of fatigue and leg pain amid the ninety-degree heat, the unnamed man’s body was discovered by coworkers in a drainage ditch. Several months later, as the state’s temperatures reached the highest levels ever recorded, fellow farmworker Efraín López García, age thirty, met a similar fate and was found lifeless under a tree.

Republican lawmakers are trying to make these jobs even more dangerous. Rather than viewing these deaths as cause for new workplace protections amid rising temperatures, business groups and their GOP allies are pushing legislation that would prevent communities from establishing workplace heat-exposure standards or compelling employers to abide by them.

It’s just the latest example of Republicans trampling on local government at the behest of their corporate benefactors. But in an era of worsening extreme heat, this particular attack on workers — connected to a coordinated and well-financed effort by big business and right-wing dark money — could be more deadly than ever before.

On Friday, Florida lawmakers passed a bill that would make it illegal for cities or counties to enforce the likes of mandated shade breaks or access to water on companies whose workers operate predominantly outside. If Republican governor Ron DeSantis signs it, the law — whose backers include the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Home Builders Association, and the National Utility Contractors Association — would also bar local governments from even asking companies with whom they contract about their heat-exposure standards.

The effort comes on the heels of a similar business-backed push in Texas, where both Austin and Dallas enacted guaranteed water breaks for construction workers every four hours, only to have the rules steamrolled by the state’s GOP-controlled government. Evidently hoping to stave off initiatives like a proposal for mandated shade and rest periods on farms and construction sites being considered by Miami-Dade, Florida’s most densely populated county, business interests seem hell-bent on making sure such protections never even see the light of day in the Sunshine State.

Such moves are in contrast to those in states like Washington and California, which have passed statewide workplace standards around heat exposure. And with heat-related fatalities in Florida already surging by almost 90 percent in the past several years alone, and the number of scorching days almost certain to increase, Republican lawmakers are effectively guaranteeing that more workers will be at risk in the years ahead.

Big Business in a Trench Coat

To say that Florida’s business community has a long-standing and cozy relationship with Republican lawmakers would be something of an understatement. Its labor department was actually abolished by Governor Jeb Bush in 2002. More recently, documents obtained by one Orlando newspaper late last year revealed that two major industry groups — the Associated Builders and Contractors of Florida and the Florida Home Builders Association (which is also backing the new anti–heat standards bill) — quite literally drafted the text of a law to loosen child-labor protections.

Republican state representative Tiffany Esposito, who sponsored the new workplace heat bill, spent years as an operative in the business lobby before being elected in 2022. She still remains the head of a regional chamber of commerce. (Esposito’s official corporate bio describes her as “A 13-year veteran of the Chamber industry, [Southwest Florida] native and strong believer in Taco Tuesdays.”)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Esposito’s roster of campaign donors is a who’s who of organizations with a vested interest in eliminating workplace safety protections and keeping wages as low as possible. The Florida Chamber of Commerce PAC, for example, was high on the list of top contributors to Esposito’s 2022 campaign, having donated $10,000. The Florida House Republican Campaign Committee, which has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the same chamber PAC and boasts many more big contributions from corporate groups, similarly donated $10,000 to Esposito’s campaign.

“She is one of the most corporate legislators I have ever encountered,” remarked Jackson Oberlink, legislative director at Florida For All, a local coalition of progressive and labor groups, in an interview with us. “Her whole philosophy is just the Chamber of Commerce, deregulation, businesses first, profit over people.”

Oberlink notes Esposito also recently pushed to preempt all local housing protections for renters.

Affirming Oberlink’s point is the fact that the freshly passed heat-preemption bill was significantly expanded beyond its original form to include measures that prohibit “political subdivisions from maintaining [a] minimum wage other than [the] state or federal minimum wage” and “from controlling, affecting, or awarding preferences based on the wages or employment benefits of entities doing business with [a] political subdivision.” The resulting legislation essentially takes the same hostile approach to local wage ordinances as it does to shade and rest breaks.

As emails obtained by Florida-based investigative journalist Jason Garcia have revealed, a lobbyist for the Florida Chamber of Commerce quite literally sent the proposed minimum-wage ban to Esposito before it was added to the bill. The chamber itself, moreover, appears to have received this from a staffer at the Naples-based Foundation for Government Accountability — a conservative think tank that belongs to a national alliance of billionaire-financed right-wing groups called the State Policy Network that has been involved in various dark-money campaigns to suppress local democracy in states like Missouri, Ohio, and South Dakota.

While Esposito did not respond to requests for comment, she and her colleagues have barely even pretended this new legislation is about anything besides employers’ bottom lines.

“This is very much a people-centric bill,” remarked Esposito in response to concerns about its proposed elimination of local heat exposure ordinances. “And if you want to talk about health and wellness, and you want to talk about how we can make sure that all Floridians are healthy, you do that by making sure that they have a good job. And in order to provide good jobs, we need to not put businesses out of business.”

Joining the chorus was Esposito’s GOP colleague Webster Barnaby, who somehow managed to be even less subtle: “I understand the importance of us having compassion for our workers. . . . But we must continue to do the hard work . . . of making sure that our economy is an economy that’s growing, it’s an economy that is attractive.”

Big Business Agenda, Meet Climate Reality

At both the national and the state level, Republican politicians often position themselves as proponents of small government who favor localized decision-making over blanket laws handed down from above.

Yet from Texas and Florida to Missouri, Kentucky, and Delaware, the self-proclaimed “party of the working class” is proudly championing a race to the bottom in which local government is irrelevant and the priorities of business interests are seen as synonymous with the public good.

Whether it’s overriding county wage ordinances, banning measures designed to protect workers from extreme heat, or quite literally empowering corporations to sue municipalities over regulations and bylaws that might affect their balance sheets, Florida in particular has become a laboratory for legislation that runs roughshod over local democracy in the interests of private profit.

The symbiosis of right-wing dark money, big business, and Republican lawmaking is, of course, nothing new. But the heat provisions found in the new bill may be a canary in the coal mine for what the already familiar model of corporatist lawmaking and governance will look like when it collides with the realities of climate change.

Florida already boasts the hottest average temperatures in the United States. And, according to a new study by the Nature Conservancy, climate change has already made it unsafe for workers in tropical climates to perform manual labor outdoors in daylight hours throughout large swathes of the year. Even in the short term, exposure to extreme heat can quickly cause dehydration and reduce the body’s capacity to cool itself, in turn raising the possibility of heat stroke — particularly in the context of physically taxing work. Longer-term or repeated exposure, meanwhile, increases the risk of chronic heart and kidney problems.

According to data collected in 2021 by nonprofit advocacy group the Union of Concerned Scientists, nearly a quarter of Florida’s total workforce currently operates outdoors — with hundreds of thousands of people working in pivotal sectors like agriculture, tourism, and construction.

Calling the anti–heat protection legislation “inhumane,” the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Kristina Dahl told us that its effects will be most consequential for essential workers.

“These are the people who are planting and harvesting our food,” says Dahl. “They’re the people who are fixing our roads and homes and buildings, and often that work is unseen and underappreciated. But it’s some of the most dangerous work there is to do.”

Alongside several colleagues, Dahl coauthored a 2021 study that among other things closely examined both the health risks and economic implications associated with rising temperatures in Florida.

“Protecting workers from heat is relatively simple,” she told us. “They need water, shade, and rest.” But in the absence of urgently needed federal heat protection standards, she adds, it’s instead fallen to “states or countries or individual employers” to decide whether workers receive such protection and “in most places that just doesn’t exist at all.”

In that study, Dahl and her fellow researchers calculated that without significant action to reverse the pace of climate change, the exposure of America’s outdoor workforce to days with a life-threatening heat index will increase three- to fourfold by 2050. Without protections from such heat, she says there will be an inevitable and escalating “increase in heat-related illness and death among outdoor workers.”

The effects would be especially severe in Florida. In Lee County, which overlaps Esposito’s district and has a higher proportion of outdoor workers than the state average, the number of unsafe working days each year would increase to forty-one by 2050, barring major and successful action on climate change. The shift would pose a significant threat to the tens of thousands employed there in industries like farming, fishing, and construction.

In light of this, Dahl categorically rejects the binary division between workplace protections and economic prosperity offered by Republicans in defense of their heat-exposure legislation.

“Is a good job a job that requires you to work until you drop?” Dahl asked. “Is sustainable agriculture truly sustainable if people are dying in the field?”

Summing up the stakes of the new anti–heat protection bill in Florida and beyond was activist Laura Munoz — whose own father died in 2014 while working in extreme heat.

“The private market and private employers failed us,” Munoz remarked during her February testimony to the Florida House Commerce Committee: “And I’m here to ask you, did my father not deserve better? How much profit was worth his life?”