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Backlash brews against Texas law that eliminates mandatory water breaks

Texas had three straight weeks of high humidity and triple-digit temperatures in June. Critics of the law say it will create dangerous conditions for construction workers in heat waves
A construction worker takes a sip of water while repairing a road that was damaged from the heat in Houston on June 27, 2023.
A construction worker takes a sip of water while repairing a road that was damaged from the heat in Houston last month.Mark Felix / AFP - Getty Images

As Texas sweltered last month under a weekslong, record-breaking heat wave, the state passed a law that will eliminate mandatory water breaks for construction workers in cities where such ordinances had been in place to protect people from extreme heat.

Now, backlash is brewing.

House Bill 2127 passed the state Legislature and Gov. Greg Abbott promptly signed it into law on June 14. The bill, which goes into effect in September, strips construction workers in Austin and Dallas of the right to water breaks every four hours and time to rest in the shade while on the job.

The new law comes as Texas endured three straight weeks of high humidity and triple-digit temperatures in June. Such intense and long-lasting heat waves are expected to become more common in a warming world, climate scientists have said.

Backlash to the legislation is mounting. Earlier this week, the city of Houston filed a lawsuit that seeks to block the state law and have it declared “unconstitutional.”

The measure has been nicknamed the “Death Star” bill because it broadly pre-empts legislation at the local government level if it clashes with state law. The bill covers eight areas of government — including labor, business and agriculture — overturning local ordinances that are already in place and preventing local governments from passing new ones if they conflict or deviate from state regulations.

The legislation aims to address “a patchwork of regulations that apply inconsistently across this state.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement that the law undercuts the “ability to govern at the level closest to the people.”

“Houston will fight so its residents retain their constitutional rights and have immediate local recourse to government,” Turner said in the statement.

Ana Gonzalez, deputy director of politics and policy at the Texas AFL-CIO, a labor federation of 240,000 union members in the state, said the bill “attacks local democracy,” adding that it will have “a huge impact and many unintended consequences to the way we govern at the local level.”

Beyond the political implications, eliminating guaranteed water breaks could create dangerous working conditions for construction workers during heat waves. Extreme heat events have been associated with upticks in cardiovascular, respiratory and kidney diseases, and heat causes more deaths across the U.S. each year than any other weather event, according to the National Weather Service.

Last month’s heat wave caused at least 13 deaths in Texas, according to health officials. A 46-year-old construction worker in the Houston area also died on June 16 after collapsing while working in the extreme heat, as reported by the Houston Chronicle.

“This is an emergency,” Gonzalez said. “Texas is the deadliest state when it comes to construction, where one worker dies every three days in our state.”

A local ordinance was passed in Austin in 2010 that guarantees outdoor workers a break of at least 10 minutes every four hours to rest and hydrate. Dallas followed suit in 2015 with a similar ordinance.

Gonzalez said scrapping mandatory water breaks under House Bill 2127 “creates a floor for employers” and sets a worrying new standard.

“This law is not only inhumane, but it’s also very dangerous,” she said.