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“We are dying”: Houston workers protest new state law removing water break requirements

Emily Foxhall and Francisco Uranga

The Texas Tribune

Jul 15, 2023

HOUSTON — Luz Martínez was working on remodeling a school without air conditioning in the summer when one of her coworkers fell over, vomited and passed out from the heat.

On Friday, she joined other workers, labor advocates and politicians on the steps of Houston’s City Hall to protest a new Texas law that will take away cities’ power to help workers who must endure the Texas heat.

House Bill 2127, which takes effect on Sept. 1, will do away with local rules that require water breaks for construction workers. The cities of Austin and Dallas, for example, require 10-minute breaks every four hours. San Antonio officials had been considering a similar ordinance.

“We are human beings who need respect,” Martínez said. “We really need to be allowed to work without problems, without any barriers … Believe me, we are dying inside those buildings when they take away our water and our [break] time.”

Protesters at the news conference, many speaking Spanish, called HB 2127 the “law that kills” and said it will leave lawn crews, construction workers and others who labor outdoors at the mercy of their employers.

“That's why we are here, first to denounce the evil in which this law has been enacted,” said Teodoro Aguiluz, executive director of CRECEN, which advocates for immigrants in Houston. “Second, to make it clear that from now on our organizations will work to stop this injustice, this evil of this law.”

This summer has already been a punishing one, with record-high temperatures throughout the state, a reminder that climate change continues to worsen heat in Texas. At the morning news conference, protesters sweat as they wore hard hats and held white crosses in honor of construction workers who have died from the heat. Organizers offered water and Gatorade.

The bill marked another unwelcome example of state government taking power from local governments, said Sergio Lira, president of the Greater Houston chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens. Houston officials sued to stop the law, which the mayor said will gut a wide array of local ordinances such as those related to tow-truck companies, outdoor music festivals and noise.

Houston does not have a local ordinance requiring water breaks for workers.

"Our brothers from Central America and Mexico come to work here and want to work fairly and honestly for the American dream," Lira said. "However, there are laws, like this one, that make it an American nightmare and we will not tolerate them."

There are no specific national workplace standards for preventing heat-related illnesses. Without local laws, preventing heat-related illnesses on the job falls on workers and their supervisors, who may not know the danger signs.

Already, workers have suffered.

One person who wrote remarks for Friday’s protest spoke of having a paycheck docked because they took water breaks. Another said his supervisor ordered him to work even as he suffered cramps in his legs and arms and felt nauseous. A third said she quit her job in a warehouse because the heat was too much.

Just two weeks earlier, a man named Felipe Pascual collapsed in the Houston area while working and died because of the heat, advocates said. They set a pair of weathered work boots on the ground in his honor.

"Eliminating access to water breaks is a low blow to workers; we won't forget it," said Linda Morales, president of the Gulf Coast chapter of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement. "The temperature outside may change in October, but our human temperature will not forget what Greg Abbott has done to our Latino workers."

Two county commissioners — one from Harris County, which includes Houston, and another from neighboring Fort Bend County — excoriated Abbott and Texas legislators for passing what they called an unfair, immoral bill. A poster showed a cartoon of Abbott placing a construction worker on a grill with a spatula.

“How many people must die before we do something?” asked Fort Bend County Commissioner Dexter McCoy, who added that he wasn’t aware of any cities in his county that require water breaks for workers. “How many people must be exploited before we recognize the tremendous issues in our state as it relates to putting profit over people?”