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Texas heat forces some outdoor workers to modify schedules and adjust work patterns

Electrician .jpg
Karina Lujan
/
KUT
An electrician works on a house under construction in Austin in July.

On a scorching El Paso morning last week, Obaldo Chacon paused to check the line on a string trimmer. The temperature was already in the mid-90s and climbing quickly. Noon was still about an hour away.

The high temperature that day would eventually reach 104 degrees and remain in the triple digits well into the evening. Chacon, 50, is the head of maintenance at Central El Paso’s Radford School.

“I’ve been working here 17 years, my partner 16 …. and we’ve both felt the difference, how much hotter it is, how much [the temperature] has changed over the years,” he said in Spanish.

He said he and his partner now stop working outside at about noon and fill the rest of their day with indoor tasks.

The heatwave that’s gripped Texas and the rest of the country has spurred conversations on a host of issues like climate change, drought and whether Texas’ grid can sustain the demand for electricity. For workers like Chacon, however, the priority is keeping safe doing a job that requires more time outdoors than others.

“We just got to put up with it, we really can’t do anything” about it, said Jordan Alvarado, a United States Post Office mail carrier whose route includes the hilly terrain of El Paso’s Manhattan Heights and Scenic Drive neighborhoods.

“The heat is actually the worst part of this job because we don’t have air conditioners in our trucks. So, we have to try and keep fresh whether it’s with a fresh towel or a wet towel,” he said.

Alvarado said his route covers about 12 miles and takes a little longer in the summer months due to the oppressive heat.

“We got to take more breaks than usual compared to the wintertime. The wintertime? We can find ways to keep warm, gloves or mittens, scarves and things like that. But with the sun, you can’t hide from it,” he said.

Hundreds of miles from the mountainous desert of El Paso, Abdenour Terrache earns his living by working the valet parking station at Houston’s Galleria mall. He agrees that this year’s summer seems hotter compared to recent years, especially when grappling with the humidity that comes with it.

“It’s my first time to see this type of [heat],” he said. “Before it was OK. But this year, I don’t know what’s happened.”

In North Texas, the heat has made Alex Velasquez alter his schedule by a couple of hours. Velasquez is part of a construction crew that was pouring concrete Monday afternoon as the temperature hovered near 105 degrees.

“We used to start at 8 a.m., but now we're starting at 6 a.m.,” he said. The crew still must make other adjustments. The time it takes for the concrete to dry has been nearly cut in half, he said.

“Usually, it's about three or four hours working time, but now it's like two,” he said. “[We need] more people so we can work faster.”

The weather prompted the U.S. Department of Labor to launch an operation to ensure agricultural workers are protected from possible employer abuse and heat-related illnesses.

The initiative, called Operation Beat the Heat, focuses on educating employers, growers and labor contractors on their responsibilities to help prevent injury, the Department of Labor said in a statement.

“The pandemic showed all of us the vital contributions of the nation’s farmworkers. In turn, we must ensure that these hard-working people are treated with dignity and that we honor them by ensuring their health and well-being,” said Betty Campbell, the Wage and Hour Division Regional Administrator in Dallas.

Houston Public Media’s Haya Panjwani contributed to this report.

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