Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan. Read MoreRead More
How Texans Are Coping with the ‘Death Star’ Bill
Here’s how workers feel about the elimination of mandatory water breaks amid unrelenting summer heat.
Jerry Margoitta is all too familiar with heat stroke.
“I’ll never forget it,” Margoitta told me. He was working as a water meter reader in Waco, Texas, back when meter readers still walked to each house, and he’d finished a few blocks worth of houses when he saw a coworker nearby. “He was coming towards me, and I went to turn around, and I just passed out.”
He came to in a hospital bed, with his mother and then-wife standing over him. “I was down for four days,” Margoitta said. “If it weren’t for my coworker I would have been dead in a ditch.”
That was over three decades ago, when he was 26 years old. He’s now 59, and in the time since Margoitta has worked a variety of jobs outdoors, primarily in construction. Heat has backgrounded practically his entire working life: The Texas summer is long and hot, the ground reflects the heat to intensify the effects of the sun, and heavy machinery boils the air around it.
In that kind of environment, it’s easy to miss the warning signs of heat-related illnesses. On particularly hot days, Margoitta avoids eating outside of his lunch break — a full stomach, he says, would make the heat even worse. Dehydration can also set in quickly, and the best way to deal with it is active prevention, or drinking more water than feels necessary; if someone waits until they feel thirsty, they may already be dehydrated.
So when Margoitta heard that Texas governor Greg Abbott had approved a law that would eliminate mandatory water breaks, he was flabbergasted.
“When I first read it, I was like, no, that can't be. I wouldn't know why they would make something so vital go away,” he told me. “I would hope that no employer would honor it. A lot of companies already take advantage of their employees, but now they’re going to make it even worse. They can get away with it now. They're going to close out the one thing that probably keeps people alive.”
Supporters of the bill, which will eliminate ordinances in Dallas and Austin that mandated 10-minute water breaks every four hours when it goes into effect in September, say guidelines set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are enough to ensure worker safety, and that the local laws are bad for business. But OSHA still hasn’t issued guidelines for workplace heat — though they’re expected later this year — and the Texas Observer reports that at least three people have died on the job since the bill passed. Opponents call the bill the “Death Star” law.
“All it does is simply demonstrate the lack of value on a human life,” Matt Gonzales, business manager for Local 1095, an affiliate of the Laborers International Union of North America (LiUNA) and the union that represents Margoitta. “An employee earning $18 an hour will produce $3 of production in 10 minutes. This is the dollar amount that the governor places on the lives of the workers who may die as a result of this disastrous legislation.”
Labor unions like LiUNA have breaks built into the contracts they negotiate with employers, so union members like Margoitta are protected regardless of the “Death Star” bill. But job sites tend to have a mixture of union and non-union labor, and the non-unionized laborers don’t get those benefits. Many of the non-unionized workers, Margoitta told me, are low-income or unhoused, which makes them easier to exploit and also means they have little respite from the heat.
“You step outside right now, and the heat will take your breath away,” Margoitta said. “There’s no place to hide.”
As I wrote last week, unions are increasingly factoring climate change into their plans, both for the job potential and to safeguard their workers from climate impacts. In Texas, a coalition of unions, including LiUNA, have come together under the banner of the Texas Climate Jobs Project to ensure good clean-energy jobs for their members. Now, they’re trying to figure out how workers — union and non-union alike — can be protected in the wake of the “Death Star” bill. In San Antonio, for example, they’re trying to build rest breaks into contracts for city projects and create a scoring mechanism that would tell workers which employers willfully provide rest breaks.
“We’re just trying to be creative and find ways that through policy and procedure we can get some of these things addressed,” Gonzales said. “Until there is a change in our elected officials and who's representing the citizens of Texas, we're not going to be able to effect drastic change. But in the meantime, it's up to organized labor and our community partners to band together and find ways that we can work around the anti worker legislation and bills.”
Until then, Margoitta is going to have to continue finding ways to live with the heat. He just wrapped up one job and is about to start another, helping to build a highway extension near Austin. At first, the supervisor asked if he could work on pouring concrete — a job that would require being out under the sun all day long.
“I was like, you get a bunch of 19-year-olds to do that, because I’m not about to,” Margoitta told me.
Instead, he’ll be operating a drilling machine. He wishes he had more experience operating equipment of that sort, but it comes with one big perk: An air conditioned cab.
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