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New Florida law giving state sole authority on worker protections, wages called ‘inhumane’

Farmworkers with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers are joined by supporters April 2, 2022, in the streets of Palm Beach and West Palm Beach, Fla., as they march to bring awareness to many issues faced by laborers in the fields. (OSV News photo/Linda Reeves, Florida Catholic)

By Jean Gonzalez

ORLANDO, Fla. (OSV News) — A bill recently signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been described by a farmworker advocate as “inhumane” and draconian.

DeSantis, who usually has public signing of bills, signed HB 433 in a closed door session April 11, along with other bills.

Opponents of HB 433 say it hurts farmworkers and any workers who labor under Florida’s sun because it prohibits counties or municipalities from creating their own heat exposure requirements for those who work outside, giving the state the sole authority to determine the standards.

It also preempts local regulation of employer scheduling practices in favor of the state, and — effective Sept. 30, 2026 — will strip local “living wage” laws passed in some Florida cities and counties that require their contractors to pay employees a wage that’s higher than the state’s minimum.

HB 433 was co-sponsored by Republican state Reps. Rick Roth and Tiffany Esposito.

“Heat exposure regulations coming from a municipality or a county that doesn’t have the staff, the research or the knowledge to me doesn’t make sense. As a city or county or state, you should be passing laws and regulations based on your expertise,” Roth told WPTV News in West Palm Beach.

Both he and Esposito cite experiential knowledge of outdoor working conditions. Roth cited his experience with the farming community, and Esposito remarked how her husband has two decades of experience in construction.

The legislation was drawn up following an ordinance that was proposed in Miami-Dade by the county commission, which in July 2023 considered a countywide heat protection ordinance after the deaths of farmworkers at Homestead and Parkland.

The ordinance would have created a heat standard for outdoor workers — farmworkers, construction crews, roofers, even delivery drivers — that would require “certain employers to have an approved mandatory heat exposure safety program.” It also would have required access to water, shaded recovery periods and multilingual notice of employee rights.

Esposito argued the construction industry already takes safety measures seriously and local ordinances, like the one proposed in Miami-Dade, would turn away business. “And in order to provide good jobs, we need to not put businesses out of business,” she said.

Ernesto Ruiz, research coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida in Apopka, described the policy as “cruel, inhumane and just foolish” because it does not allow local governments to enact protections for “one of the most vulnerable worker groups.”

“(This is) another instance in which the Florida government has shown that they do not value the lives or contributions of the workers that feed us and build our state,” Ruiz told the Florida Catholic. “As you well know, this is the hottest state in the country, and coupled with the high humidity that characterizes our summers, the result is an environment that is literally deadly when coupled with lack of oversight or regulation of businesses.”

Ruiz cited research conducted by Emory University’s nursing school on heat stress related injuries impacting outdoor workers over a 10-year period. Ruiz said blood and urine samples were collected, and data was collected from heart monitors worn by workers. The findings concluded that the vast majority of workers sampled were dehydrated, some facing acute kidney injury, which, over time, could lead to kidney failure or chronic kidney disease.

“It’s not rocket science,” Ruiz said. “If your body reaches a certain temperature, it will have the potential for serious damage. … Even if you make the argument that local officials are not specialists in this matter, they can defer to science to partners like us who have access to this research.”

When the now-failed ordinance from Miami-Dade was developed, it cited an estimated 327,321 outdoor workers in the county, including many thousands who labor in agriculture and construction.

How farmworkers earn their pay also has an impact on their well-being in the fields. Ruiz explained that when farmworkers are paid on a piece-rate basis — rather than an hourly or daily basis ??– they are paid based on how much they produce.

Because of this wage structure, advocates have been told by farmworkers themselves that they will “knowingly dehydrate themselves so that they don’t lose valuable time having to go to the bathroom.”

“Often the port-a-potties are located far from where the workers are located, which makes the idea of drinking water more off putting to them,” Ruiz said. “If these workers were paid in a humane way, they would not have to make the dangerous choice of not drinking water to maximize their potential earnings. Furthermore, if the Florida government would enact protections for workers — the exact opposite of what they have done with HB433 — then workers would have mandated rest, hydration and bathroom breaks.”

While farmworkers might have a water bottle strapped to them for hydration, the EPA has stated how dangerous it is to have a water source — such as a water bottle — exposed to pesticides. Therefore, having a centralized place — and more than one — with water (and perhaps even electrolyte packs) and shade at a worksite is vital, as is the time to take the breaks.

“This issue goes beyond heat. When you are talking about wage structure and pesticides, (you find) it’s a whole web of injustice and poor labor practices where it is obvious we don’t value people’s lives equally,” Ruiz said. “Florida’s legislature unanimously passed a heat protection bill for student athletes after one tragic death of a high school football player. The government is aware of the science behind heat stroke.

“What remains unclear is whether they value the lives of hardworking Floridian communities that feed us and the entire nation,” Ruiz continued. “Based on HB433, it seems as though DeSantis and the proponents of HB433 care more about maximizing the profits of big agricultural and construction businesses, than they do about the sanctity of life for working people.”

Farmworkers should not only have access not just to clean water to drink, but, because they work with pesticides, they should be afforded soap and water to wash their hands before they take a drink or wipe sweat from their brows after taking off work gloves. But too many times that is not offered to them because employers are not mandated by law to offer it.

“We would think it was ludicrous if doctors and nurses didn’t have access to soap and water to clean their hands before they went to work,” Ruiz said “But for the people who feed us, collectively we do not have access to basic measures to protect health.”

Currently Texas is the only other state that has a law on the books similar to HB 433. Six other states, including Oregon, have bills in place that do offer protections stripped by HB 433. On March 26, the City Council in Phoenix, the nation’s hottest city, voted unanimously for a protection ordinance much like what Miami-Dade might have adopted.

Advocates will continue heat-related training and pesticide training, which Ruiz admitted is like “putting a bandage on a gushing wound,” especially since on April 16, OSHA released news about another worker who died from heat stroke in September 2023.

HB 433 “absolutely undermines efforts for community members to try to make life-saving differences at the community level,” Ruiz said. “But we are not going to be phased by this and stop working. If anything, it feeds us and moves us even more to move forward.”

Jean Gonzalez is editorial/online director for Florida Catholic Media.

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