As the West heats up, Oregon's new outdoor worker protection rules are being tested
AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
A weeklong heat wave in the Pacific Northwest continues today with the National Weather Service predicting triple-digit temperatures in some areas. After even more intense heat last year, Oregon adopted some of the nation's strongest protections for workers in excessive temperatures. But as Oregon Public Broadcasting's Monica Samayoa reports, not everyone is benefiting.
MONICA SAMAYOA, BYLINE: For more than a decade, Willie Grishell (ph) has walked the same mail route in northeast Portland. He loves his job, but on hot days, he says it gets hard.
WILLIE GRISHELL: Hello. Man, you are so lucky. Your own letter from the AARP - just what you're waiting for, right?
SAMAYOA: Earlier this week, when temperatures soared into triple digits, his pedometer recorded he took nearly 34,000 steps during his 12-hour shift. On days like these, Grishell takes extra care for himself. He eats celery and cucumbers for lunch and drinks a ton of water throughout the day.
GRISHELL: If I don't get to that point of hydration, I'm already going to be in trouble at the start of the next day.
SAMAYOA: After last year's heat dome event, the state put in place new protocols to protect outdoor workers. Employers are now required to provide access to shade, cold drinking water and additional rest breaks. But some workers say they're still laboring in unsafe conditions. Schuyler Fisher (ph) is a forklift driver at a grocery warehouse.
SCHUYLER FISHER: Usually I get home and I do stuff, but I just collapse on the couch pretty much because I'm so exhausted.
SAMAYOA: On this recent hot day, Fisher says the warehouse he was working in had no AC or air ventilation. He also says his employer has not provided additional rest breaks or cool drinking water.
FISHER: You kind of lose hope. You got to go in there and get your paycheck, or else your family isn't going to be fed. So you just - you go in there begrudgingly every day.
SAMAYOA: His employer disputes Fisher's claims. Last year, labor rights groups were instrumental in establishing new rules shortly after four people died during the heat dome event. Two of those deaths were farmworkers. In Oregon, there are more than 100,000 agriculture employees. Ira Cuello-Martinez is with the group Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste. They represent farmworkers. He says the new rules haven't been consistently enforced.
IRA CUELLO-MARTINEZ: Some workers were unaware of the rules even being in effect.
SAMAYOA: Cuello-Martinez says he's also heard that some farmers end the workday earlier when temperatures get too high. But that creates another problem for farm workers when they don't get paid as much.
CUELLO-MARTINEZ: They don't have any other source of income, and it does get stressful for them.
SAMAYOA: So far, the state has opened more than 100 inspections and issued just a handful of citations for not following the heat rules. The agency says they'll issue more. Some farmers say the rules have been confusing and hard to enforce. But for some outside workers, the new rules don't apply at all, like letter carrier Willie Grishell. He's a federal employee, not covered by state law.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
GRISHELL: I know, baby. It's all right.
SAMAYOA: As he nears the end of his route on this day in the 90-degree heat, Grishell says he hopes the federal government adopts standards like those in Oregon. If not, he fears more tragedies may force more regulation.
GRISHELL: The other way that it's going to happen is we're going to have more and more people die.
SAMAYOA: Grishell describes the worst day he can remember last year when it reached 116 degrees. On that day, he says the sun just seemed angry.
For NPR News, I'm Monica Samayoa in Portland.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.