Home Posts Heat Waves Cause Employees To Leave The Workplace.
Heat Waves Cause Employees To Leave The Workplace.

Heat Waves Cause Employees To Leave The Workplace.

Alicia Lara, a 55-year-old mother of four, works the drive-thru at a Jack In The Box in Sacramento, and she says the restaurant's air conditioning unit frequently fails when she needs it the most, including during a recent mid-June heat wave.

According to Lara, the unit was not working on June 18 when the outside temperature soared well above 100 degrees; the open window at the drive-thru provided little relief, and she feared for the safety of her coworker who was working on the grill.

“The majority of the heat is in the kitchen and at the fryers,” she explained to Stardia, adding that “even if we open the window, it is still too hot.”

Lara was one of several workers affiliated with the Fight for $15 who protested outside the restaurant on Tuesday, saying they were walking off the job because the air conditioner was still broken, and they also filed complaints with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health and Sacramento County Public Health, alleging their employer was endangering them during high heat.

On June 18, when the outside temperature reached 109 degrees, Lara reported that the air conditioner was not working.

According to a statement provided to Stardia by Jack In The Box, the restaurant is run by a franchisee, and the air conditioning unit is operational.

“We take the health and safety of our employees and guests very seriously, and we have spoken with the franchise operator and confirmed that the air conditioning is fully operational,” a spokesperson said in an email.

Lara, on the other hand, claimed that the air conditioning unit had previously been repaired, only to fail again during extreme heat.

“They fix it, but not correctly,” she said of the restaurant’s management, adding, “What I think they don’t want to do is pay the money.”

When temperatures reached 109 degrees, the A/C didn't work, and a boss blamed workers going through MENOPAUSE for the heat. The company STILL hasn't fixed the A/C. #FightFor15 #ProtectAllWorkers pic.twitter.com/0IPgtWJ8xA — Fight For 15 Nor Cal (@NorCalFF15) June 29, 2021 pic.twitter.com/0IPg

The protest outside Jack In The Box is unlikely to be the last time workers protest having to work in extreme heat this summer; the calendar hasn't even reached July, and the Pacific Northwest has already broken heat records, and much of the Northeast is baking in triple digit heat.

Heat waves will affect workers of all types, not just roofers and farmworkers who are stuck outside, but warehouse pickers, restaurant workers, and others who work indoors, particularly in workplaces that are not equipped to deal with extreme heat.

Readers of Stardia, if you've had issues with excessive heat at work, please email us.

Workers at a Voodoo Doughnuts location in Portland, Oregon, staged a walkout on Sunday, citing excessively hot working conditions. The union Doughnut Workers United, which narrowly lost a union election at the location earlier this year, wrote on Facebook that doughnuts were melting and frosting couldn't dry inside the store due to high temperatures.

“The insufficient A/C and water are insufficient to protect the workers from the hottest day in Oregon history,” the group stated, adding that “the workers left together at 1:00 PM today in solidarity with each other.”

Three workers who took part in the walkout were eventually fired, according to the union.

Voodoo Doughnuts refuted the workers' claim that the store was too hot, saying that it was air-conditioned and that production times were shifted to avoid the hottest hours.

“Employee and customer safety are our top priorities,” the spokesperson wrote, adding that “if we felt either were at risk during this time, we would have adjusted operating hours and otherwise made sure everyone was safe.”

Workers at a Houston-area Hooters held their own walkout in mid-June over hot temperatures. Corinne Hill, one of the dozen or so workers, told local news station KPRC that the restaurant went a month without working air conditioning, forcing them to retreat to the ice cooler for cool air. Workers said they'd been told that the part needed to repair the unit was out of stock.


“Today, we decided as a group that we weren’t going to tolerate it, so we walked out,” Hill said at the time.

Heat waves will affect workers of all types as climate change makes them more severe and common.

Shortly after the walkout, the restaurant closed the dining room, and KPRC reported that an air-conditioning repair company was soon on the scene.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration can fine employers for heat hazards in the workplace, but there is no federal standard that clearly defines an employer's obligations to protect workers in extreme heat.

When OSHA cites an employer in such cases, it typically relies on the general duty clause, a catch-all rule that states employers have an obligation to provide a safe workplace. Many workplace safety advocates have pushed OSHA to adopt a federal standard similar to the state requirements that have been adopted in California.

Workers do have some rights if they object to working in excessively hot conditions, though the law will not always protect them from being fired. The Occupational Safety and Health Act gives workers the right to refuse dangerous work if there is a clear risk of death or serious physical harm, but a worker who is fired for doing so must win a retaliation case under OSHA.

Workers staging a walkout due to the heat could also try to rely on the National Labor Relations Act, which guarantees the right to engage in protected concerted activity, i.e., banding together with coworkers to improve working conditions, with or without a union. If workers were retaliated against, they could claim they were attempting to protect one another's health.

“I believe it is exactly what the act is intended to help workers do, which is to band together to ensure they are treated fairly,” said Celine McNicholas, labor counsel at the Economic Policy Institute.

However, the law provides only limited recourse for workers who have been wrongfully punished, and McNicholas cautioned that the success of any legal argument would be heavily dependent on the facts of the case, including how workers framed their walkout.

The six Jack In The Box employees who filed the heat complaint with California did so with the assistance of the Fight for $15, a union-backed campaign aimed at improving pay and working conditions in fast food restaurants. They requested that safety inspectors visit the restaurant and issue a citation if hazards were discovered. California is one of 22 states where workplace complaints are handled by a state agency rather than a private company.

The workers claimed in their complaint that the air conditioning unit was broken for the entire week of June 14 to June 20, causing headaches for some of them, and that their manager has become combative when they raise their concerns about the heat, accusing them of exaggerating and saying, "We are just hot because of menopause."

They expressed dissatisfaction with the month of July.

They wrote, “The extended forecast for Sacramento is yet another heat wave.”

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