June Jobs Report: Working in Extreme Heat

Nationwide—During an unusually hot June, the U.S. economy added 206,000 jobs, while the unemployment rate inched up to 4.1%. New data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics also reveals that while the unemployment rate for Black workers ticked up to 6.3%, unemployment remained steady at 3.5% for white workers. The unemployment rate was 4.8% among Latinx workers and 4.1% among Asian workers. Continuing disparities in unemployment rates are a result of structural racism in the U.S. labor market.

“The excessive heat the U.S. has experienced in the last month is particularly dangerous to the people who have to work in it—hundreds of thousands of workers succumb to heat-related illness, injury, and death each year,” said Rebecca Dixon, president and CEO of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), “The risk of workplace heat dangers is especially acute for workers of color, who are more likely to work in jobs that expose them to excessive heat as a result of occupational segregation. As human-caused climate change produces more extreme temperatures, the need for strong federal heat protections is becoming more urgent every summer.”

Workplace heat illnesses and injuries are a nationwide problem. NELP senior policy analyst Anastasia Christman finds that between 20 to 25 percent of workers in every region of the country are employed in occupations that make them especially vulnerable to excessive heat. Yet the heat protections that exist are a patchwork system across states and localities: Workers in only five states—California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and Minnesota—have the protection of a heat standard, and these states vary greatly in the workers that are protected, the nature of those protections, and the temperature at which protections are triggered.

Workers are demanding that employers provide basics like air conditioning and fans indoors, shade and cool water outdoors, additional rest breaks, and the right to leave work with no reprisals. The worker-led National Council on Occupational Health and Safety is also bringing together workers across industries and leading the push for government action to mandate these and other common-sense measures.

After decades of worker-led advocacy and organizing, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced a proposed rule to protect workers from extreme heat on July 2. Meanwhile, states like Maryland and California are implementing their own protections. Yet Florida and Texas have further endangered workers by banning cities or counties from enacting local heat protection rules.

In June, 27,000 jobs were added in the construction industry, 900 jobs were added in waste management, and 6,000 jobs were added in building services (a category that includes landscaping work)—all among the industries where workers risk excessive outdoor heat exposure. Data on agricultural jobs, which can also subject workers to extreme outdoor temperatures, is not reported in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ establishment survey.

In addition, 3,100 jobs were lost in food service and drinking places in June, 8,000 jobs were lost in manufacturing, and 2,300 jobs were lost in the warehousing and storage industry. These are among the industries where workers are calling for improved indoor heat standards.

Ultimately, workers need the right to refuse work that threatens their health and safety through exposure to dangerously hot work environments. The unemployment insurance (UI) system offers one powerful way to facilitate this right: If dangerous heat constitutes “good cause” to quit a job and still receive UI benefits, and if jobs in dangerously hot workplaces are recognized as unsuitable work that workers can refuse and remain eligible for benefits, UI can offer workers a safeguard against hazardous heat on the job. However, not all state UI systems acknowledge these rights.

The Unemployment Insurance Modernization and Recession Readiness Act, introduced by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Representative Don Beyer (D-VA), would help strengthen workers’ right to refuse dangerous exposure to heat on the job. The bill sets nationwide standards for UI, including requirements that all states recognize unusual risks to health and safety as “good cause” to quit a job and “unreasonable risk to the individual’s health [or] safety” as a reason to consider work unsuitable. The bill would also mandate that states offer at least 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, raise UI benefit amounts to replace a greater share of workers’ prior earnings, and increase coverage for part-time workers, temp workers, and workers whose earnings fluctuate over time. The bill also establishes a new, federally funded Jobseekers Allowance to support jobless workers who would not otherwise be covered by unemployment insurance, and modernizes the Extended Benefits program that makes additional weeks of unemployment benefits available in times of high unemployment.

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