U.S. Rep. Greg Casar stages “thirst strike” to advocate for federally mandated water breaks in extreme heat

U.S. Rep. Greg Casar, D-Texas, walks down the House steps on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. last year. On Tuesday, he launched a "thirst strike" to advocate for federal policy requiring paid water breaks for people who work outdoors in extreme heat. (Julia Nikhinson For The Texas Tribune, Julia Nikhinson For The Texas Tribune)

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As outdoor workers in Texas battle extreme heat, U.S. Rep. Greg Casar, D-Austin, launched a daylong “thirst strike” in Washington, D.C., as he pushes for a federal workplace standard that would mandate water breaks for people whose jobs require them to work in the heat.

“It’s challenging and it’s hot, but it’s not as hot as it is in Texas,” Casar said as he kicked off the event, during which he’ll forgo water for eight hours.

On Tuesday morning, Casar was joined on the steps of the U.S. Capitol by other lawmakers, labor union members and activists.

Many held up posters that read: “Working shouldn’t be a death sentence,” “Water breaks = basic rights” and “People over profit.”

There are no federal or state standards that specifically protect workers from heat stress. And a recently passed Texas law will soon bar cities and counties from mandating that private employers offer paid water breaks. House Bill 2127 limits Texas cities and counties from creating rules that go beyond what state law requires. Workers in Houston recently protested the law.

Weather data shows that this summer is on track to be among Texas’ most extreme, and the sweltering heat has put workers in sectors like construction, agriculture, mail delivery, manufacturing, food preparation and landscaping at risk. Since the onset of the heat wave, at least three workers have died in Texas from causes that officials are investigating as possibly heat-related. According to work safety experts and unions, heat-related deaths are likely undercounted because many are registered as related to other causes.

The strike is planned to last eight hours, from 10:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. EST, when the House is scheduled to vote on other matters. According to his social media, Casar took his last sip of water at 10:25 a.m. EST before beginning the strike. It is part of Casar’s career-long effort to draw attention to the conditions workers face in extreme heat.

On Monday, Casar released a letter, signed by over 100 other House members and Senators, calling on the White House and Occupational Safety and Health Administration to fast-track federal workplace heat protections. Although Congress could establish these protections, it would be a more challenging and time-consuming process due to opposition from the Republican majority in the House.

The former labor organizer also spearheaded a thirst strike in Austin in 2010, when he was 21, to push the City Council there to mandate water breaks, which it did later that year. However, the ordinance, along with similar rules in other Texas cities, is set to end Sept. 1, when the new state law takes effect.

“A healthy worker is a better worker,” said U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, speaking at the event.

Earlier this year, Garcia reintroduced federal legislation that would mandate regular, paid water breaks for construction workers. The bill, which was based on legislation Garcia pushed for in the Texas Senate in 2017, is unlikely to receive a vote in the Republican-controlled U.S. House.

Jasmine Granillo, a Texas worker’s rights activist, said a water break could have saved her brother’s life. Roendy Granillo died from heatstroke in 2015 after he was reportedly denied a water break at his construction job.

“This event is out of respect for families like Jasmine Granillo’s,” Casar said.

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