Florida’s outdoor workers could lose billions as climate change makes it too hot to work

Florida’s outdoor workers could lose billions as climate change makes it too hot to work


Climate change, if left unchecked, could make outdoor work in notoriously hot Florida even more unbearable and unhealthy, and a new report shows it could also make that work less profitable.

Under scenarios where the world doesn’t quickly cut fossil fuel emissions, there could be a full month of the year where it’s too hot to safely work a normal day outside in Florida. Right now, Florida experiences an average of five days like that a year.

“Between now and mid-century, outdoor workers’ exposure to extreme heat would quadruple,” said Kristina Dahl, senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and co-author of the report. “That could put them in the position to increasingly choose between their health and their paychecks.”

Florida, the third-most populous state, has the third-largest population of outdoor workers. Those 2 million workers account for nearly a quarter of the state’s workforce and earn $56 billion a year.

Those earnings could be at risk in a future with more days where it’s too hot to work outside.

By the Union of Concerned Scientists’ calculations, Florida outdoor workers could lose up to $8.4 billion of those earnings by mid-century if no action is done to slow climate change. If the world acts slowly to lower fossil fuel emissions by that time, workers could lose less, around $6 billion.

The numbers grow more dire by century’s end. With continued slow action, workers could lose around $7.5 billion a year, versus double that amount with no action.

The only state with more potential earnings at risk is Texas.

As heat and humidity rise, the CDC recommends that employers provide more work breaks to avoid heat-related illness. However, reductions in work time would translate into losses in workdays (top map) and put workers’ earnings at risk (bottom). Florida, especially South Florida, ranks highly on both maps.


Per Florida worker, that breaks down to losing $3,743 a year in wages by mid-century if nothing is done to switch away from fossil fuels and $2,648 a year if slow action is taken.

Miami-Dade, Florida’s most populous county, has the most outdoor workers in the state — over 300,000.

Miami-Dade’s first Chief Heat Officer, Jane Gilbert, said she’s planning to host focus groups with outdoor workers and their employers to hear more about what conditions are like and how the county could possibly protect outdoor workers. So far, no one is talking about regulations for heat exposure for outdoor workers.

“Having something on the books that you cannot enforce doesn’t make sense,” she said. “I’d rather focus our resources on raising awareness, making employers aware of what their costs are and broader responsibilities to their workforce.”

She’s also talked with the National Weather Service about sending out more alerts for dealing with heat. This summer, cities from Seattle to Boston have issued heat advisories, but there have been none in Florida, despite record-breaking temperatures.

That’s because heat, like time, is relative.

The threshold for a heat advisory in Florida is a heat index (meaning temperature plus humidity, or “feels like”) of 108 degrees Fahrenheit for at least two hours. An “excessive” heat warning requires temperatures of 113 degrees.

“You can have pretty dangerous conditions over 100 heat index and they’re not even getting into advisories until 108,” she said.

Florida heat is already hard on outdoor workers. Climate change will raise health risks.

Dr. Ankush Bansal, co-chair of the Florida Clinicians for Climate Action and a doctor of internal medicine in a Palm Beach County hospital, said extreme heat can take a toll on the body. It affects the lungs, the heart and especially the kidneys.

In extreme cases, heat illness can lead to red or brown urine, the result of muscles in the body breaking down into pieces and clogging up the kidneys.

“What happens is, and I’ve seen this, people that work outside … even athletes … are coming into the hospital with heat exhaustion or even heat stroke, which if untreated can lead to death,” he said. “If you have heart disease or a history of heart failure, it can throw you over the edge. It can cause a heart attack.”

The military treats extreme heat as a matter of national security. It has strict rules and a flag-based system for warning soldiers how much strenuous activity they can safely do outside in order to keep military personnel safe and healthy.

Florida’s soldiers face more heat risk from climate change than any other state’s

The Union of Concerned Scientists report calculated the potential lost wages by using similar standards, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for worker safety on days when the heat index is at or over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The center suggests workers take a break for 15 minutes every hour in shade and drink water.

As the heat index rises, the recommended amount of outdoor work drops. At 104 degrees Fahrenheit, the CDC says workers should work 30 minutes and rest 30 minutes. When the heat index crosses 108 degrees Fahrenheit (the standard for a heat advisory in Florida), the CDC recommends no one work outside at all.

The report assumed those breaks were unpaid.

“It’s an assumption but it also reflects to some extent that some outdoor workers are paid annually, some are paid hourly and others are paid piece rate,” Dahl said.

Tree trimmers work along Southwest 13th Street in Fort Lauderdale to remove limbs damaged during Hurricane Irma, Sept. 18, 2017.
Tree trimmers work along Southwest 13th Street in Fort Lauderdale to remove limbs damaged during Hurricane Irma, Sept. 18, 2017.


Piece rate workers can be paid per pound of fruit or vegetable they pick, per lawn they mow or other per task goal, and would potentially have the most to lose economically in a future where it’s physically unsafe to work outside sometimes.

That’s a present reality in Saudi Arabia, where outdoor work is banned from noon to 3 p.m. from June to September to protect workers from dangerous heat.

In hot places like Arizona or Florida, outdoor workers already adjust their schedules to survive the summer. Construction workers get going at dawn and take breaks when the noonday sun is hottest. Some contractors, like AC repair workers, avoid sending employees into sweltering attics for jobs that can be put off til the cooler months.

Those adjustments may become more common in the U.S. as the world warms, but for now, they’re solely at the discretion of the employer.

There is no nationwide protective standard for outdoor workers, although the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health developed standards in 2016 for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to take up, which it never did. OSHA’s general duty clause requires employers to provide a safe working environment, and it has some recommendations for working in extreme heat, but it’s tough to enforce a recommendation.

Veronica Custodio, 37, picks through spinach at her father’s farm in Homestead on May 27, 2020. The farm belongs to Juventino Custodio, 53, who was forced to let his spinach rot after the coronavirus pandemic caused a disruption in his supply chain process.
Veronica Custodio, 37, picks through spinach at her father’s farm in Homestead on May 27, 2020. The farm belongs to Juventino Custodio, 53, who was forced to let his spinach rot after the coronavirus pandemic caused a disruption in his supply chain process.


survey of hundreds of nursery workers in Homestead by the organization WeCount! found that more than half said they weren’t allowed to rest in the shade, 15% said they weren’t provided water and 69% had experienced symptoms of heat illness.

Farmworkers told the WeCount! organizers they try not to drink water so they can avoid bathroom breaks and possibly missing production quotas.

Another study of farmworkers in Central and South Florida measured core body temperatures, heat rate and hydration levels. Half started the day dehydrated, and three-quarters finished that way. One in three of the workers had acute kidney injury at some point in the study.

So far, California and Washington have passed state-level heat protection laws for outdoor workers, but they have different standards, leading to unequal protections during this summer’s heat wave.

“If we leave it up to states to do individually, we’re going to end up with a real patchwork of protections for outdoor workers,” Dahl said.

Reducing workload and shifting outdoor work to cooler parts of the day can help, she said. “But since there are limits to those, we found our first line of defense has to be reducing emissions.”

If Florida and the rest of the world stop burning fossil fuels, the worst effects of climate change and extreme heat can be avoided.

Bansal said there’s a common analogy in the medical world when discussing treating symptoms versus cause that applies to climate change too. If a bathtub is overflowing and you’re only putting towels on the floor but never turning off the water, the problem will never be fixed.

“And that’s what we need to do, shut off the faucet,” he said.

Miami Herald intern Ariana Aspuru contributed to this story.

Author: John Hanno

Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. Bogan High School. Worked in Alaska after the earthquake. Joined U.S. Army at 17. Sergeant, B Battery, 3rd Battalion, 84th Artillery, 7th Army. Member of 12 different unions, including 4 different locals of the I.B.E.W. Worked for fortune 50, 100 and 200 companies as an industrial electrician, electrical/electronic technician.

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