California representative introduces bill for ‘smoke leave’ during wildfires

November 6, 2023
wildfire smoke

Barbara Lee aims to extend worker protection against wildfire smoke

In an effort to safeguard workers from wildfire smoke, California Rep. Barbara Lee introduced a bill in Congress mandating new worker protections.

The bill requires employers to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually for employees whose health is at risk due to heavy smoke conditions.

The legislation would offer a shield to outdoor workers such as farmworkers, construction workers, and delivery personnel, potentially impacting employees from companies like UPS and Amazon.

Protection amidst wildfire smoke exposure

This legislative proposal taps into the growing concerns over air quality due to intensifying wildfires across the United States.

The San Francisco Chronicle quoted Lee: “The climate crisis has made wildfires increasingly a part of the daily life of Californians, especially for us in the Bay Area.

“But our economy cannot come to a halt each time we deal with the aftermath of wildfires, nor can we sacrifice worker safety.”

The legislation builds upon existing state laws and could set a precedent for federal action on environmental work safety.

Smoke Leave: Facing opposition and support in Congress

While the bill, coauthored by Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, a leading member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, begins to gain traction with endorsements from environmental and health groups, it faces potential resistance from industry and House Republicans.

The proposed Smoke Mitigation and Occupational Key Enhancements Act, or Smoke Act, tasks the Department of Labor with creating new standards for smoke-affected workplaces, similar to other federal work safety standards.

These measures would include monitoring the Air Quality Index and providing protective equipment or safe locations for work during smoke events.

FSJA Comment

The introduction of the ‘smoke leave’ bill by Rep. Barbara Lee marks a significant step toward adapting workplace regulations to the realities of climate change and its consequences, such as the surge in wildfires.

With air quality deteriorating during wildfire season, outdoor workers are subjected to health risks that are currently unaddressed at the federal level.

The legislation not only aims to establish necessary precautions for employers but also underscores the need for a systematic approach to protect the workforce under environmental emergencies.

It highlights the balance that must be struck between economic continuity and worker health, a conversation that is increasingly relevant for emergency response and industries dependent on outdoor labor.

The progressing support and debate around this bill will shape future workplace policies in the era of climate change and raise awareness of the occupational hazards linked to environmental disasters.

About the bill and its implications

The bill introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee is a response to the escalating incidence of wildfires across the country, affecting air quality and posing serious health threats to workers, particularly those in outdoor industries.

The legislation’s aim is to expand worker protections in the event of such environmental crises by granting them the right to ‘smoke leave.’

If passed, it would be a pioneering federal response to a growing occupational health concern related to the effects of climate change.

It serves as a call to action for both public health preparedness and labor rights advocacy.

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