The Biden administration wants to protect farm workers from heatwaves Amid extreme heat, there are few federal protections for workers during hot temperatures. The Biden administration wants to change that but the rule making process is long and the heat won't wait.

It's hot. For farmworkers without federal heat protections, it could be life or death

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Texas and other Southern states are experiencing a heat dome with record temperatures. This is leading to brutal conditions for people who work outside, including farmworkers, but there are few laws to protect them. President Biden campaigned on rules to protect workers from extreme heat. But as NPR's Ximena Bustillo reports, some states are not waiting for the White House and Congress.

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER: Aguas? Gatorade?

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: Volunteers from the United Farm Workers walk through rows of grapes and hops. They hand out Gatorades and water on a warm June day. It's the morning and not quite the peak of summer, but spend enough time outside, and you start to feel the sun.

LORENA AVALOS: (Speaking Spanish).

BUSTILLO: That's Lorena Avalos, who until last summer was picking blueberries. Now she's working for the UFW under a new partnership with the Agriculture Department to help the farmworker community. Right now, she's walking them through a new rule.

AVALOS: (Speaking Spanish).

BUSTILLO: They must have more breaks once temperatures reach 90 and 100 degrees...

AVALOS: (Speaking Spanish).

BUSTILLO: ...Also shade and water. Washington state is one of five states that have created permanent heat rules. Two years ago, a heat dome like the one in the South this year had descended upon Washington.

AVALOS: (Speaking Spanish).

BUSTILLO: She said the heat is unbearable because sometimes the temperature is at 85 outside, but when the field is covered, it feels like 90 or 92.

AVALOS: (Speaking Spanish).

BUSTILLO: Lorena and her then-16-year-old son were working in the blueberry fields under a tarp used to protect blueberries from birds. She remembers how people suffered from the heat.

AVALOS: (Speaking Spanish).

BUSTILLO: Another farmworker told her that her head hurt, and she told her that she has to step outside to get water and shade. They didn't even have shade. She began throwing up, and they had to call an ambulance.

AVALOS: (Speaking Spanish).

BUSTILLO: That's when Lorena decided her son wouldn't come back to the fields. And Washington then came up with an emergency rule and now a permanent rule in line with the rules placed in Colorado, Oregon, California and Minnesota.

AVALOS: (Speaking Spanish).

BUSTILLO: Still, even with a rule, she says it's groups like hers that need to make sure people know their rights and call if they're not getting shade, water and breaks.

AVALOS: (Speaking Spanish).

BUSTILLO: Berry farmers across the Yakima Valley say they often don't have their workers out during peak temperatures anyway. Kevin Knight, a farmer in the Naches area, says, sometimes, the issue is the workers don't want to take breaks because they're paid piece rate. This means they're paid for how much they pick, and any break cuts into their bottom line.

KEVIN KNIGHT: If they're picking cherries, they don't want to take time out because it costs them money. So mandatory breaks irritate them.

BUSTILLO: And truth is, the heat impacts more than just the workers.

KNIGHT: It's not good for the fruit. It's not good for the people. Pretty much, it's not good for anything. We can't spray when it's hot. It burns stuff. There isn't much you can do when it's hot.

BUSTILLO: But continued climate change means workers and farmers can expect more heat. Biden came into office wanting to create a heat rule. After the Northwest heat dome of 2021, the Labor Department got started. Doug Parker is the head of the federal agency for workplace safety and health. He says a rule to protect both indoor and outdoor workers from heat is still a top priority.

DOUG PARKER: Heat is particularly important because of the broad range of workers that it affects and because of the issues of equity that are involved. So many workers who are disproportionately affected by heat are low-wage workers who have jobs outside - they're often immigrant workers, workers of color...

BUSTILLO: Parker says even if there is no heat-specific rule, the government expects employers to still follow general regulations for making sure workplaces are safe.

PARKER: Where there's a combination of hot weather and strenuous work, you know, these are - this is clearly occupational hazard. And we expect employers to make adjustments to their work processes.

BUSTILLO: But the rulemaking process is long. And two years in, and there's plenty to go before workers get these protections. And adding to the mix - the 2024 presidential election. Any change in administration, Parker said, would likely impact the process since this was a Biden administration priority. This leaves it back in states' hands, and not all states are on the same page. Just last month, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a law that removed water breaks for construction workers. Until there is a federal standard, states will continue to be a patchwork as temperatures continue to rise.

Ximena Bustillo, NPR News, Yakima, Wash.

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