Workers from various service industry sectors across Atlanta; Charleston, S.C.; and Durham, N.C., united in simultaneous rallies last month to address the escalating challenge of extreme heat in their workplaces. This coordinated effort, organized by the Union of Southern Service Workers, aimed to highlight the hazardous conditions faced by employees as temperatures soar to unprecedented levels this summer.

“We demand a safe work environment. We shouldn’t work in heat that is unbeatable. I am intolerant to high temperatures; I cannot do heat to this degree,” said Mari Robinson, who has been working as a cashier at Family Dollar in Durham for almost a year. “Even customers come in and are hot. We do a lot of work in the heat. When we take breaks for drinks or rest, we get reprimanded. At Family Dollar, management doesn’t care; corporate sure doesn’t seem to care.”

In Atlanta, Charleston, and Durham, employees from establishments such as Family Dollar and Popeyes gathered on June 18 to demand immediate action from their employers to ensure safer working conditions amid the sweltering heat. With temperatures reaching alarming highs, including estimated heat-index values reaching 108 degrees in South Carolina, workers emphasized the urgent need for effective air conditioning, regular breaks with access to water, and protocols for managing heat-related emergencies.

Prism reached out to Family Dollar and Popeyes for comment, but they did not respond.

“We demand a safe work environment. We shouldn’t work in heat that is unbeatable.”

“We’re constantly sweating. My shirt will be drenched working in that store. It honestly feels like you’re going to die from how hot it is,” said Destiny Mervin, a Popeyes employee in Atlanta. “Someone fainted last week, and the week before that, someone had a seizure. Popeyes does not care. A worker shouldn’t have to die for Popeyes to take unbearable heat seriously.” 

The country has been experiencing an unprecedented heat wave, as climate change causes heat waves to increase in length, intensity, and frequency. Heat waves rolled through Texas and Florida in May, and another wave swept through California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas in June, which eventually spread to Oregon, Colorado, Washington, and Idaho. Another heat wave is anticipated to hit California, Texas, and Louisiana this month. 

In Southern California, the Warehouse Worker Resource Center is advocating for swift protections amid the heat wave, especially for workers in warehouses and distribution centers, who are particularly susceptible to overheating but historically excluded from federal workplace heat safety standards and regulations. 

In response to the critical situation, President Joe Biden and OSHA announced a proposal for the first national heat standard on July 2. The protections include proposed requirements for employers to provide rest areas, drinking water, and shade. The rule would protect 36 million workers from extreme heat. 

“We are encouraged to see President Biden and OSHA take action by publishing a proposed rule that will protect tens of millions of workers across the country from extreme heat,” said Oscar Londoño, co-executive director of Florida-based immigrant workers organization WeCount!, in a statement responding to Biden’s proposal. “Today’s proposed rule was made possible by the courage and conviction of all of the workers in Florida and across the country who have organized for years to demand basic life-saving protections like water, shade, and rest breaks. … Without a national heat standard, thousands of workers, especially in Florida, will be at risk of suffering preventable heat-related illnesses and deaths.”

Londoño said the proposal is a win, but not enough, calling on OSHA to move with urgency to publish a final rule this year. 

“Workers have been promised heat protections for years, and we cannot afford to wait any longer,” said Londoño. “We call on employers and industry associations to stand on the right side of history by supporting a national heat standard and taking proactive steps to enact heat protections for their workers. Employers shouldn’t wait for a national heat standard to protect the health and safety of their workers.”

President Joe Biden and OSHA announced a proposal for the first national heat standard on July 2.

According to Dr. Cheryl Holder, the founder and co-chair of Florida Clinicians for Climate Action and co-chair of Miami-Dade Climate and Heat Health Task Force, extreme heat causes physiological changes that can lead to dehydration, mood changes, decreased productivity, and increased risks of accidents and injuries on the job.

“We know that putting in the protections will guarantee productivity with less injury and less risk of losing lives,” Holder said. “Every employer should have a plan.”

In April, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 433, which prevents local governments from requiring heat exposure protections for workers. Farmworker and labor advocates in Miami spent years advocating for heat protections for outdoor workers and came close to victory before the agricultural industry successfully lobbied against the law. As of July 1, it is now illegal for local governments in Florida to pass health and safety measures for outdoor workers in extreme heat, a stark contrast to the Biden administration’s proposed heat standard announced only one day later. The decision comes as Florida is experiencing its hottest summer on record, with temperatures reaching 100 degrees.

“I think it’s good that everyone knows signs and symptoms, but our goal is to not get to the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion,” Holder said. “I don’t want you feeling dizzy; I don’t want leg cramps. [At that point] you’ve already hit a danger zone.”

In 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 51 fatalities due to exposure to extreme temperatures, and approximately 43 of those deaths were specifically due to extreme heat. Between 2011 and 2021, 436 farmworkers lost their lives to heat stress and heatstroke. Activists say this figure is probably an underestimate due to underreporting, with many deaths being attributed to preexisting health conditions exacerbated by extreme heat. Among the most harrowing consequences are the alarming rates of kidney failure among farmworkers, with individuals in their 30s and 40s requiring dialysis as a result of chronic dehydration and elevated core body temperatures. 

Shae Parker, who worked at various Waffle House franchises across the country for 23 years, went on strike for three days last year after the company failed to fix the broken air conditioner in a Columbia, S.C., restaurant amid extreme heat. Parker joined the group of advocates in Charleston to highlight the need for heat protection. Prism reached out to Waffle House, but the company did not respond to a request for comment.

“It was very hot, and we could not deal with not having an AC,” said Parker. “We were sweating through our clothes. Co-workers were passing out. [They were] nauseated, vomiting.” 

Parker, who has diabetes and suffers from long Covid, had difficulties breathing without air conditioning.

“We’re trying to get these corporations and our bosses to be accountable and make sure that we’re safe at work.”

“I would have to walk away from my tables to catch my breath or to get a drink of water,” said Parker. “We would have to put towels in the cooler just to remain cool without having air. So with that, our co-workers got together, and we decided to go on strike with Waffle House.”

According to Parker, after the strike, Waffle House temporarily fixed the air conditioning. Now, Parker is a cashier at a gas station experiencing similar issues, having to work in conditions between 78 and 81 degrees.

“This is a continuous fight with these corporations and businesses throughout the South, not just here in South Carolina,” Parker said. “We’re trying to get these corporations and our bosses to be accountable and make sure that we’re safe at work.” 

Worker demands included immediate improvements in cooling systems and hydration access, the development of comprehensive heat safety plans, and mandatory training for all staff and supervisors on recognizing and responding to heat-related illnesses.

“I want these corporations and these bosses to take our lives more seriously,” said Parker. “They need to do better. Climate change is a workers’ rights issue right now, and it is horrible how service workers are being treated. We’re going to continue to fight.”

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