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Amid Lethal Heatwave, Texas Workers Lose Their Right To Rest

The Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Service has responded to 410 heat-relatEd incidents just since June 1, according to a spokesperson, Capt. Christa Stedman. Among them: A middle-aged man, working outdoors, who called for help after experiencing signs of heat exhaustion.

“It progressed so quickly into heat stroke that, between the time he called 911 and the time that the paramedics arrived on scene, he was fully unconscious and his core temperature was over 106,” Stedman said.

Construction worker Mario Ontiveros risks the same outcome. Because he works in Dallas, a local ordinance gives him the right to at least a 10-minute rest break every four hours. But this is the last summer he’ll get to claim it.

On June 13, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed HB 2127 — the Texas Regulatory Consistency Act — which bars cities and counties from passing regulations that are stricter than state ones. It also overturns local rules such as ordinances in Austin and Dallas that mandate rest breaks for construction workers. The law takes effect Sept. 1.

Suffering from heat with no way to take time off
Dallas implemented its rest-break ordinance in 2015. Three years before that Ontiveros lost feeling in his arm after painting high school stadium stairs for more than 10 hours in 112-degree heat, he told Public Health Watch through a translator.

“The other workers called paramedics and I was rushed to the hospital, where I spent seven days battling tendonitis,” Ontiveros, 61, said. “Aside from the physical and emotional trauma of recovering from an illness exacerbated by extreme heat, I was out seven days of work, with no help from work to pay my medical bills.”

While doctors recommended that he stay home to recover, Ontiveros said it wasn’t financially possible. He spent several years in physical therapy but said he still has to be careful, especially in the heat. “It’s changed my life,” he said, “but I’ve had to learn to deal with it …”

State Rep. Dustin Burrows, the Republican from Lubbock who authored HB 2127, said in a press release that the law is needed to end “the current hodgepodge of onerous and burdensome regulations.” But for construction workers in two of the state’s fastest-growing cities, advocates say, it poses serious health risks.

“We know that workers do pass out and experience heat stress and different types of heat illnesses,” said Daniela Hernandez, state legislative coordinator for the Workers Defense Action Fund, a Texas-based advocacy group that pushed for the rest-break ordinances.

Surveys of Dallas construction workers before the city’s ordinance was adopted found that 33% said they didn’t receive rest breaks and 66% said they didn’t receive water. At least 53 Texas workers died from heat-related illnesses between 2010 and 2020, according to a 2021 investigation by NPR, The Texas Newsroom, The California Newsroom, Public Health Watch and Columbia Journalism Investigations.

Research published in 2018 — eight years after Austin passed its rest-break ordinance — found that construction workers were 35% more likely to get a break because of the rule.

“[HB] 2127 is a huge overreach on part of the state and it takes away things like rest breaks that we know save lives,” Hernandez said.


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