(WASHINGTON) — As a dangerous heat wave continues to plague tens of millions of Americans across the country, one Texas lawmaker is pushing for heat protections, including water breaks, for those who work outside in the brutal conditions.
Rep. Greg Casar, a Democrat, organized a so-called “thirst strike” on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, where he says he didn’t drink water or take a break all day in order to call attention to the issue.
Last month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill into law that overrides city and county ordinances, which critics say will also strip local protections in place for outdoor workers, such as mandated water breaks.
The law goes into effect on Sept. 1 and would put an end to safeguards such as the ordinance the City of Austin passed in 2010 that requires rest and water breaks on construction sites for at least 10 minutes every four hours. The City of Dallas passed a similar ordinance in 2015.
Casar spoke to “GMA3” on Wednesday about why he’s urging the federal government to take action.
DEMARCO MORGAN: So we talk about the heat and this extreme heat that’s pretty much taken over the summer. But you can’t help but think about the workers who have to be in these conditions and in these elements here. How dire is this situation?
CASAR: Everyone deserves a water break. Working should not be a death sentence. But, unfortunately, in places like Texas, where I’ve grown up, it is way hotter than normal, and we’ve had people lose their lives delivering the mail, pouring concrete, fixing electrical lines. And we need to protect those workers.
But tragically, this month, the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, chose to sign a law that rips workers’ right to taking a water break away from them. We’ve had local protections in Texas guaranteeing people rest breaks from the heat, and the governor took that away.
And so that’s why I did a thirst strike all day yesterday, standing on the Capitol steps, not drinking water, not taking a break, demanding and urging that we fix that problem by passing a law protecting workers from the heat or having the president use his authority to guarantee a federal heat protection mandate for all Americans right now.
EVA PILGRIM: Let’s talk about that thirst strike that you were just mentioning. What was the goal there? What kind of attention were you hoping to get?
CASAR: Before I was an elected official, I was a labor organizer, and we would organize workers to participate in these thirst strikes across Texas, standing in front of city halls, not drinking water, not eating food, standing in the sun. And those thirst strikes helped us successfully pass water break protections in multiple cities across Texas, and now those protections are being taken away in a historic heat wave.
And that’s why we launched another thirst strike now in Washington, D.C., because the president has the authority to finally put in a federal rule guaranteeing everybody the right to shade, the right to come off of a scaffold if you’re starting to feel sick in the sun.
We know that there are big corporate interests that have been pushing back against any kinds of these rules getting passed. That’s why there is no federal protection for water and protection for workers in the heat right now.
But we can change that by raising our voices. And I think the voices of most Americans can overcome the corporate lobbying that has held back workers’ rights for so long.
MORGAN: So congressman, why are we so behind in federal laws when it comes to protecting workers?
CASAR: We had yesterday, on the Capitol steps, farm workers who talked about cutting onions in the sun and fields where there is no shade and where they weren’t being provided water.
Construction workers and warehouse workers who were pushed to work faster to finish a project and having their breaks cut. Flight attendants who had been put on a plane over 110 degrees that they didn’t want to pull the flight attendants off of, because they wanted to take off, even though the AC wasn’t working.
Ultimately, that’s when profits are getting put before people, and it’s our role as the government not just to take care of companies’ bottom lines, but to take care of the people that make our economy work.
So I think we have to reorient our priorities as a Congress and start focusing on the working people that make the economy work, not just on big businesses’ bottom line.
PILGRIM: Do you think fixing this is as simple as just federally mandating water breaks? How would you enforce something like that?
CASAR: In the city of Austin – I represent the city of Austin and the city of San Antonio in Texas – we passed a water break ordinance and that required education. We had posters at every construction site telling people they had the right to water. There was the ability to enforce this by people calling in complaints. But what we saw from a peer-reviewed study was that construction workers in Austin were 30% more likely to say they were starting to get water breaks after that law passed than before, because laws set norms.
But we also should do the right thing by one another. But I think that it’s really important for us to have a federal heat standard so that workers know they have the basic right. They can raise their hand and say, I have the right to come off this scaffold. I have a right to take a break from the warehouse and get a drink of water. And they don’t have that right, right now.
In some Texas cities, they currently do, but that’s being stripped away by the governor. And to me, that’s not acceptable. Let’s take this opportunity – if he’s trying to take this right away in a historic heat wave – for the president to step in and do the right thing or the Congress to step in.
We had over 110 members of the United States Congress and U.S. senators sign a letter alongside me that I wrote this Monday saying they want to see this heat standard put in place. So it’ll only take a small number of Republicans to sign onto a bill and we can get this fixed.
MORGAN: So with extreme weather conditions seemingly getting worse, how do we protect workers in the future?
CASAR: I grew up in Texas, and we know it is hot, but it has not been this hot before. We had the two hottest weeks in San Antonio’s recorded history the other day – temperatures crossing 110 degrees in the Rio Grande Valley, and it’s only going to get worse.
So we need more workers’ rights as we face this climate crisis, not fewer worker rights. We need to guarantee people a living wage, guarantee people a union and a voice at work.
On top of these water break protections, we, I believe, as a Democratic Party, but frankly as a government, need to start focusing more on how the climate crisis is going to hurt workers.
Because there’s going to be worse winters like the power grid failure we had in Texas and worse summers. We’ve got to address worsening weather in our community, and we’ve got to protect people on the job as things get worse.
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