Commentary, News

Coalition of groups calls on OSHA to save worker lives, adopt heat stress rules

In recent years, largely due to global warming, there has been an increase in days of “extreme” heat and record-breaking summers. In fact, 17 of the 18 hottest summers have all taken place after 2001, with 2016 and 2017 being the two hottest summers on record. With the hike in temperatures there has also been an increase in the number of days with deadly heat — days during which the combined heat and humidity overwhelm human thermoregulatory capacity even for people at rest.

The increase in number of deadly heat days and overall average temperature could prove to be deadly for workers who labor outside. Worker deaths due to heat have been reported all over the United States. Workers in industries ranging from construction to agriculture work full time in extreme heat with little to no protections or precautions to protect them from the dangers of heat exhaustion. According to Public Citizen, due to the record breaking summers that are now becoming the norm, the epidemic of heat stress injuries and deaths will only worsen and exacerbate other health problems such as asthma and heart disease.

The effects of the temperature rise on workers can be seen in the case of migrant farmworkers in North Carolina. Researchers at the Center for Work Health found that North Carolina has historically ranked as having some of the worst rates of US heat fatalities among workers. From 1992-2006, for every 100,000 North Carolina farmworkers, an average of 2.5 died of heat illness. Many North Carolina agricultural employers are required to provide cool drinking water within a quarter-mile of worksites, but because they are not actually required to provide rest breaks, workers do not always have time to drink that water. With the temperature rise that is already locked in, it is vital to protect workers from these extreme conditions. The solution to heat-stress is simple: hydration, shade, and rest breaks for workers, but many employers will not implement these solutions voluntarily.

California, Washington, and Minnesota have already implemented some form of protective heat standards for their workers, as has the U.S military. But for approximately 130 million workers across the nation there is no current protection against heat stress. A coalition of organizations led by Public Citizen is petitioning the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to initiate the rulemaking process for the first national standard that would protect U.S workers from the dangers of heat stress. The proposed standard would include heat stress thresholds, medical monitoring, personal protective equipment (PPE) and a Heat Alert Program, among other protections and precautions. This coalition will also launch national and state public education campaigns in an effort to bring awareness of the growing problem of extreme heat.

You can learn more about the petition and campaign at:  https://www.citizen.org/our-work/health-and-safety/heat-exposure

agriculture, Commentary

Why farmworkers don’t get paid for overtime (and what should be done about it)

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), U.S. hourly workers must receive overtime pay for any hours worked over 40 in a workweek at a rate of time and one-half their regular rate of pay—that is, unless you are a farmworker. Earlier this year, on FLSA’s 80th anniversary, Senator Kamala Harris and Representative Raul Grijalva introduced the Fairness for Farm Workers Act, a bill that would correct this injustice by extending overtime pay to farmworkers.

Since 1938, FLSA has guaranteed the right to overtime pay for most workers, but for the past 80 years farmworkers—who often endure more than 10-12 hour shifts—have been excluded from the protections afforded by this law. A big reason for this, as the Huffington Post explains, is that during the 1930’s southern Democrats formed part of the political coalition enacting the New Deal. These southern Democrats intended to keep farm work, most of it done by African-Americans, as cheap as possible. After eight decades, these exclusions continue to negatively impact African-Americans and Latino farmworkers. Below are a pair of testimonies from farmworkers that explain the need for overtime protections.

Statement of Bety — a farmworker from New York state:

“My name is Bety. I live and work in NY State. I am an agricultural worker. I have been working in agriculture for 8 years. It is hard work and poorly paid. I work more than 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. Or sometimes I work fewer hours depending on the weather. I am currently working on an apple ranch and here the weather during the winter is very cold. A lot of the times we have to work in very cold temperatures pruning apple trees and sometimes the snow reaches us above our knees. We work even when it’s raining or when the temperature is above 90 degrees. I work all year in the same place and I would like to have the same rights as other workers from different industries such as receiving overtime pay, having the right to organize, and decent housing. Read more

Commentary

Congress moving to make life even harsher for struggling U.S. farmworkers

As Carol Brooke explained in this post last week, Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) introduced a bill earlier this year with the inaccurate name, “Securing America’s Future Act.” This bill (H.R. 4760) along with another immigration bill, a “compromise bill,” will be voted on later this week. In Goodlatte’s bill, there is a proposal, the “Agricultural Guestworker Act” (AGA), which would eliminate the H-2A work program. The H-2Aprogram allows U.S employers who meet certain requirements to employ foreign workers to work in agriculture. The H-2A program requires employers to provide housing, reimburse workers for any travel expenses, pay workers a minimum wage of $11.46, provide employment for ¾ of the total hours of the contract period, among other protections.

H-2A farmworkers currently have the protections mentioned above, but with Goodlatte’s bill virtually all of these protections would be eliminated. Under the “Agricultural Guestworker Act,” a new work program would be established, H-2C. Under H-2C wage rates would be drastically lowered, the total number of hours employers must provide workers with employment would be cut from ¾ of total hours to ½ of total hours of the contract period. In addition, workers would not be reimbursed for any travel expenses and 10% of workers’ wages would be withheld.

Goodlatte’s bill will not only harm guestworkers, but will also be terrible for North Carolina farmworkers. With the current H-2A work program, employers are required to hire qualified U.S workers who apply for work during the first half of the season. The AGA would remove this protection entirely, leading to the displacement of U.S citizens and lawful permanent residents who are currently employed as farmworkers. Those who choose to continue to work in agriculture under H-2C would be forced to accept low wages and harsh work conditions having been left with no other choice.

As a current “Into the Fields” intern with Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF), I have been placed with the North Carolina Justice Center and part of my internship allows me to do outreach to farmworkers. Going out to farmworker camps and speaking with farmworkers has been eye opening. During our visits, we provide farmworkers with resources and information about their rights. During our visits I have learned that farmworkers are often afraid to speak out due to fear of retaliation from their employers. Farmworkers are afraid of being blacklisted and not being hired the following year if they speak out. Even if farmworkers are working in poor conditions or are being paid below the minimum wage they would rather say nothing and keep their jobs. The farmworkers that we have spoken to say that they know that their rights are being violated but choose to stay because having this job, even under harsh conditions, is better than having no job at all.

Farmworkers are already some of our country’s most vulnerable workers yet provisions like the AGA target them. Farmworkers are being threatened with further exploitation and additional burdens are being placed on them, our nation needs to do better and treat those who pick the food we eat with the dignity and respect they deserve.

If you would like more information on “Securing America’s Future Act,” which includes the “Agricultural Guestworker Act,” click here to read Brook’s essay, “Worst-of-all-worlds immigration bill would harm foreign and U.S. workers.”