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Deceleration speaks with Texas AFL-CIO Deputy Policy Director Ana Gonzalez about extreme heat, worker deaths, and fighting forward in the midst of a climate emergency.
Texas being a Hot State—long before industrially charged global warming began accelerating extreme weather events and extending our heat spells—we’ve had plenty of time to think of ways to keep outdoor workers safe in the elements. Out of all weather-related events, heat is the true killer, according to the National Weather Service (see graph below). Those heat-related deaths have been growing. The Texas Tribune has reported 279 heat-related deaths in 2022, the most, they found, since at least 1999.
But Texas being a Red State means workers don’t get many—if any—breaks, with the heat or otherwise.
“What is known as the Texas Miracle for some is known as the Texas Nightmare for others, particularly in the construction industry,” Ana Gonzalez, deputy policy director at the Texas AFL-CIO, told Deceleration this week.
Deaths on the job in Texas are commonplace. In 2021, there were 533 workplace fatalities in the state. That’s orders of magnitudes above most other U.S. states. It’s over 60 more deaths than California (which has 10 million more people) and more than double the deaths logged in the state of New York, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As we blow past previous temperature records on the regular due to climate change and the world moves into what is likely to go down as the hottest year on record (if not 2022 then 2023 is a lock), heat is playing an increasingly significant and predictable role in these injuries and deaths.
Here’s a few from 2022:
- August 8, 2022, 31-year-old Christopher Strickland died while installing sprinkler heads in San Angelo. The OSHA report states that Strickland “spent most his shift digging narrow trenches with a pickaxe an d laying the irrigation pipe. The employee lost consciousness and collapsed while working. It was determined that the employee had suffered a heat stroke and died.” Landscaping company Entrenos was given an initial penalty of $7,250, which was later reduced to $2,175. The violation alleged was OSHA’s General Duty Clause requiring employees to provide a workspace “free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees,” in this case: “high ambient heat while performing jobs duties.”
- On June 23, 2022, 24-year-old San Antonio resident Gabriel Infante died from heat stroke after his core temperature reached 110 degrees. (Read the excellent story about Infante and struggles for a heat standard by Sara DiNatale at the San Antonio Express-News.) Infante, a former member of the Weslaco High School Jazz Band was working his way through school at UTSA in San Antonio, according to his obituary, and had been installing fiber optic cable in full sun.
Here’s the OSHA report:
At 5:24 p.m. on June 23, 2022, an employee had been performing soft scaping (hand digging with a shovel) in direct heat with no shade. The employee was in the process of moving fiber optic cable from the street to behind a curb in a grassy area. The goal was for the employee to bury the cable about 12 inches into the g round. The employee complained of feeling tired and was also experiencing cramping. Due to these complaints, the employer took the employee off the digging crew and sent him with a coworker (vac truck operator) to dump a load. When the employee returned from dumping the vac truck, he began performing soft scaping again. Shortly after, the employee became combative and the police were called. The employee continued to be aggressive, was refusing aid, then passed out and was unresponsive. EMS was called and the employee was transported to the hopsital and died the following day. The employee had been diagnosed with severe heat stroke and had a core temperature of 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Complaining of chest pain at a job site in Liberty Hill, 49-year-old Jorge Gomez died two days before Infante. The OSHA investigation showed that Gomez “was exposed to high ambient heat from direct sun exposure during the performance of his job duties. The employee died due to cardiac/respiratory system failure related to heat exposure.”
- John Guerrero Jr., 46, died from heat stroke in Austin last May. It was his first day of work with the company. He had been drinking water and Gatorade, the OSHA reports states, but “the employee was not trained on how to identify the symptoms of heat illness and their severity.”
- Also in May 2022, 63-year-old Jose Armando Tobar collapsed and fell off a roof to his death. “Heat exhaustion or heat stroke were determined to be either contributors to or the cause of the fall,” that investigation found.
The City of Austin passed worker protections in 2010 requiring a 10-minute water break every four hours. Dallas did similarly in 2015. Houston passed a worker protection ordinance earlier this year. San Antonio has been moving in that direction thanks to the initiative of former Councilmember Ana Sandoval, though local business interests reportedly gummed up the effort. The business lobby has successfully fought off initiatives at the state level, where efforts to pass state-wide heat protections for workers have been stymied for years.
Under the leadership of Bum Steered Texas Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, Dems proved incapable of coming together to stand against many garbage bills kicked out by Republicans this last session. Still some of them were rowing reliably in the direction of worker rights. HB495, filed by Terry Meza, would have essentially taken city protections enshrined by Austin and Dallas to a state level for any company contracting with governmental bodies. HB4673 , filed by Rep. Lulu Flores, would have established a heat illness prevention advisory board to develop heat standards for both indoor and outdoor workers in Texas. Neither of them made it out of the House.
What came out of Austin this last session was anything but worker friendly.
As a heat dome began to take shape over Texas and Mexico, driving the region into punishing daily triple-digit temperatures, Governor Greg Abbott signed the so-called “Death Star” bill, HB2127. Pending a legal challenge by the City of Houston, the law will eliminate a wide swatch of local protections and regulations—including these water breaks—starting September 1, 2023.
The bill dramatically limits the ability of people to govern themselves at the local level and shifts the preponderance of that power to the state’s anti-regulatory Republican leadership.
To get better grounded in the mounting challenges facing working people most exposed to extreme temperatures in Texas, Deceleration called Ana Gonzalez, deputy policy director at the Texas AFL-CIO.
The union, we should point out, is both fighting for the rights of workers in their current jobs and going to the root of the climate threat with the Texas Climate Jobs Project, which intends to shift the state toward cleaner energy sources and away from fossil fuels responsible for the rapid rise in heat and storms in recent decades.
Gonzalez cut her teeth organizing with the Workers Defense Project, where she fought for the rights of construction workers and helped bring that Dallas ordinance into place. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Deceleration: Can you tell readers about the state of the state in Texas when it comes to worker’s rights and heat?
Ana Gonzalez: We know that Texas is known as this Texas Miracle, right? It really caves to businesses and there’s very few protections for workers. What is known as the Texas Miracle for some is known as the Texas Nightmare for others, particularly in the construction industry. Construction is the deadliest industry where one worker dies every three days in our state. Texas is a state where most workers died of heat-related illnesses.
We’re the only state that does not require worker’s compensation. One out of five workers are victims of wage theft. One out of three of those workers are victims of retaliation. And we have many other issues that workers face. There’s just not enough protections: from low wages to deadly working conditions, etcetera.
Just in the last few weeks a postal worker died from a heat-related illness. It’s across industries, absolutely.
On heat-related illness and deaths, I know these are almost always undercounts. Just getting people to report through official channels is difficult, but you mentioned heat deaths in construction, specifically. Do we have good data on that?
You’ve hit right on that. This is under reported. It really is. Sometimes it can be labeled as something else. It’s like when we look at other forms of data. The Texas Workforce Commission does not really track, speaking of wage theft, they don’t track businesses by region or industry. They track it by ZIP Code. So when we’re talking about wage theft or the $6M that are owed every year to workers in the state, we really don’t know which industry it is. The data is not just 100 percent accurate.
Where does heat injury and heat deaths fall for the AFL-CIO in terms of priority?
Safety is a priority for the AFL-CIO. In my previous position, I was at Workers Defense when the Dallas ordinance was happening. And this came informed by construction workers. Every Tuesday workers would come to us injured or thousands of dollars in wages owed. And the organization would help them go through those processes. In Dallas there was a death of a 25-year-old construction worker that died of a heat stroke. That his employer denied him to get breaks. His mother speaks about noticing that he wasn’t eating. He would come back home and she would check and he was just not eating. When he collapsed and died his body temperature was 109. Their family got really involved in the organization, got really involved in pushing for rest breaks for construction workers in Dallas.
Because this is preventable. This is preventable and this is absolutely inhumane. It’s unthinkable that just because people are trying to get through projects and putting profits over people’s lives, they won’t give breaks.
What year was that in Dallas?
The ordinance passed in December of 2015. And then in Austin it passed in 2010. So we’re talking about ordinances that have been in place for many years and there hasn’t been any impact on construction, on the contrary: construction is everywhere in our state. So this argument that this policy is burdensome to businesses is just false.
How does it work with OSHA? I’m interested in this Biden proposal of 2021. This is the perfect time to bring it back, I would think.
Texas is a huge state. Unlike other states, we don’t have a state OSHA. I believe that for the last 18 months there was a [federal] working group putting together a proposed [heat] rule. Businesses have been really pushing back against this. It’s just incredible. We saw the same at the local level. We’ve been having this conversation around rest breaks at the [Texas] Legislature for years, for years. I’m not sure [OSHA] will move fast enough for us to address what is happening right here, right now, in Texas, which is what we need. You mentioned that: It’s been years in the making. We just can’t wait for the federal government to act. That’s why we need local governments to step up particularly in a state that has failed workers.
What organizations and interests have been standing in the way?
We’re talking about the associations, NFIB (National Federation of Independent Business), the Texas Public Policy Foundation, organizations that claim to represent small businesses. This preemption issue is not new. We’re talking about like 2013 it was fracking, Uber, bag bans. Pre-emption is not a new concept. This bill is just so extreme compared to what we’ve seen in past sessions. It’s the biggest shift of local power and to the state. Like you said, what are we going to do when there’s an issue that needs to be address in our communities?
Austin is very different than Corpus and Waco and other places in our state. It’s not a one size fits all approach. So what’s going to happen when there needs to be a response in those communities. Instead of going to your council that meets every week now we’re going to have to go to Austin that meets every every other year for 140 days in a process that is not accessible to people.
Who has been leading at the Texas Lege to get state-level changes?
At least since 2017 there’s been pressure for rest breaks. In that session, Victoria Neave (House District 107). And then from there Mesa carried the bill (HB495). This session, Rep Flores filed HB4673, it would investigate heat illnesses and fatality prevention—it’s broader than construction. But none of those bills got a hearing.
Are these city efforts doing enough?
It’s a step. I would say that Austin ordinance is 10 minutes every four hours. But that’s just the floor. It’s just creating a floor. Since then we’ve seen that workers know that they have the right to take a rest break. And if that is not the case, then workers have a porcess to file a complaint. And they have a way to try to correct that. It really shifts the dynamic between workers and employees and knowing that there is a process. That it’s not just a guideline or a recommendation or completely up to your employer to say, ‘OK. Go stand in the shade.’ But there is at least a floor. And of course, if employers want to do more than that, that’s absolutely allowed under the ordinace. I would say that all of these bills are a good first step.
Deceleration created a Know Your Rights component in our Extreme Heat Survival Guide based on OSHA language of recommendations to employers, but I think we gave them too much credit. What would happen in Texas if a worker made a complaint saying this checklist is being violated? Anything?
The General Clause is a general statement and says employers must provide workers with a workplace free of recognized hazards, but it doesn’t specifically require any actions. And that includes rest and water breaks.
So occasionally they will invoke the General Clause if a worker is killed and OSHA inspectors believe that the employers failed to provide rest breaks or water breaks or any other issue led to that worker’s death. But even then there is no power or citation that can require specific actions.
So most likely a worker makes a complaint like that they’ll be out of work?
Yeah. It really is the case that when they issue citations it really is in egregious cases, like what we saw in Dallas. And another thing: That is a citation for the employer. But if you are a worker and you are injured and you don’t have worker’s compensation then you’re going to have to pay the hospital bills, you’re not going to be able to work, you might be fired. It is, as I’ve said, it is a system that has completely failed workers in the state. And the Texas Legislature is the primary party responsible. And now they’re eliminating the basic few protections we do have at the local level. We’re talking about non-discrimination ordinances that go beyond federal law. We’re talking about eviction protections. We’re talking about responding to natural disasters. We’re still in a pandemic, but if it gets worse again, they have prohibited municipalities from responding with COVID precautions.
I get that we don’t need to be waiting around for the federal government to bring something that can be taken away with the next election. But I guess the question is what winning looks like. In your opinion, how should people be working to correct this?
We are going to continue to organize and fight for workers in our state. The ideal situation is for workers to have collective bargaining agreements, which is also why we’re seeing a lot of workers looking to unionize. But definitely we will continue to organize and fight back against attacks.
Join a union.
Exactly. Join a union.