The heatstroke Fernando Arista suffered still weighs heavily on his mind. It took the electrician three days to recover from an episode in the scorching Texas heat that left his muscles limp, his head throbbing and his mind disoriented — all because he was denied a water break on the job, he said.
That was last year. But now, as a brutal heat wave sends Texas temperatures soaring into the triple digits, Arista said he fears other workers will suffer the same fate — especially after Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed a law last month that will remove construction workers’ mandated 10-minute breaks to drink water and rest in the shade.
“More people will suffer, and some will die — and it’s because Republicans decided to take away a basic right and because workers are not protected from these extreme conditions we face all over the country,” Arista said from the Capitol’s steps, where dozens of workers and labor organizers gathered on a steamy Tuesday afternoon to call on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to swiftly implement a nationwide workplace heat standard.
Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Dubbed the “Death Star” bill by critics, HB 2127 prevents cities and counties from creating legislation if it clashes with state laws; it also overrides existing ordinances. Proponents of the bill have touted it as a means to streamline business practices in Texas by having a single set of regulations. But opponents argue it’s the latest effort by the Republican-led legislature to undercut local governments — and put workers in harm’s way to boost profits.
The eight-hour protest — representing the time of a typical work shift — was led by Rep. Greg Casar (D-Tex.), who refused to drink water during that time in an effort to highlight the lack of protections for workers during extreme heat waves, which are becoming more common and costly because of human-caused climate change.
LIVE NOW: I’m at the U.S. Capitol holding an all-day Vigil & Thirst Strike for Workers’ Rights. Our climate is in crisis & workers in every state are dying from the heat. @POTUS must create a federal heat rule and save lives — because #WorkersCantWait! https://t.co/n1ORI8Y1ka
— Congressman Greg Casar (@RepCasar) July 25, 2023
It was not Casar’s first thirst strike. Before he was elected to Congress in 2022, he was with the Workers Defense Project (Proyecto Defensa Laboral), a Texas-based nonprofit that advocates for the state’s low-wage immigrants. There, he helped organize a thirst strike in 2010 that resulted in Austin implementing a water break ordinance. In 2015, a similar thirst strike led to Dallas doing the same.
Those gains, however, will be erased come September when Texas’s law overriding local workplace ordinances goes into effect. Casar, some seven hours after his last sip of water on Tuesday, said he remained hopeful.
“We won in 2010 and 2015 by having a thirst strike,” he told The Washington Post. “And now in 2023, we’ve had another thirst strike that I think is what’s going to propel Congress and the White House to enact federal heat protections.”
Around the country, this summer’s sweltering heat has left people hospitalized from burning pavement and scalding hoses. In Louisiana, juveniles have reported getting “extremely hot” in prison cells where they have no air conditioning. More than 100 migrants died from heat near the border. And workers across the nation have continued to toil under the dangerous conditions.
Still, there’s no federal standard for outdoor workers exposed to extreme heat — meaning it’s up to states and their labor departments to issue workplace mandates.
Three states — California, Minnesota and Oregon — have permanent statewide heat standards in place. Washington state implemented emergency heat protections, with its labor department still drafting permanent regulations. Yet similar bills in Florida, New York and Nevada haven’t pass in recent years.
In February, attorneys general in New York, California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania sent a letter to Douglas Parker, who leads OSHA, urging the implementation of an emergency temporary heat standard — citing how climate change is “spurring longer, more intense, and more frequent heat waves” that are harmful to workers’ health.
An OSHA spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
On Monday, more than 100 members of Congress signed a letter to the Department of Labor calling for federal regulations requiring employers to provide adequate hydration, rest breaks in shaded areas and medical services to address heat-related symptoms.
“Urgent action is needed to prevent more deaths,” the letter stated, citing the recent deaths of two workers in Texas.
President Biden ordered OSHA in 2021 to begin drafting heat-related employer guidelines. Ana Gonzalez, deputy director of policy and politics for the Texas chapter of the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the country, called the lack of federal regulations “inhumane.”
“We don’t need guidelines. We need requirements. We need enforcement,” Gonzalez said.
On Tuesday, hope mingled with grief on the Capitol steps, where the lack of trees offered no reprieve from the afternoon heat. A thick, black frame displayed a photo of Roendy Granillo, who died of heatstroke in 2015 while working construction. More than a dozen candles surrounded his picture — along with a bottle, representing the water break Granillo’s boss is accused of denying him before his death.
“The deaths and the long-term organ damage extreme heat can provoke on the body are completely preventable,” said Lindsay Spinney, a nurse who flew to D.C. from Austin to aid the protesters.
Nearby, Eva Marroquin, a construction worker from Austin, clutched a sign reading, “PEOPLE OVER PROFITS.”
“Working shouldn’t be a death sentence,” she said in Spanish. “But I don’t have a choice. I’m a single mother of five. So the way I see it, I can either expose myself or not pay my bills.”
“I just think we deserve to be treated like humans,” Marroquin added, her eyes filling with tears.
Around her, cheers in Spanish and English broke out as other lawmakers, including Democratic Reps. Jamie B. Raskin (Md.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Eric Swalwell (Calif.), Cori Bush (Mo.) and Joaquin Castro (Tex.), passed by to express their support.
At 6:50 p.m., as the sun began dialing down and a cool breeze intercepted the heat, Casar took his first sip of water since 10:25 a.m. — a drink blessed by Texas-based Rev. Jim Rigby.
“I feel more hopeful and more inspired and better after eight hours,” he said before drinking from a glass and then sprinting up the Capitol steps.