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Extreme heat is killing American workers

By Umair Irfan - Vox, July 21, 2021

Abe Carlin held up an instant-read thermometer in the Portland, Oregon, pizzeria where they worked. It showed 103.2 degrees Fahrenheit. Even with half the ovens off and the air conditioning cranked up, the kitchen was desperately hot on June 27, when a heat dome capped the region.

Outside, temperatures were breaking records as a searing late-June heat wave settled across the Pacific Northwest. Portland reached a record high of 112 degrees Fahrenheit, only to be broken the next day. Portlanders, who have rarely felt such heat, didn’t want to turn on the ovens in their own homes.

So as temperatures started rising, more orders came into the pizzeria. The kitchen staff struggled to keep up with the demand using their limited oven space. And staffers who would have helped out couldn’t make it in as cables melted in Portland’s light rail system and left commuters stranded.

Conditions in Carlin’s pizza restaurant were actually better than many in the food industry. Employees were rotated between the cooler dining room and the warmer kitchen. The break room was stocked with cold Gatorade. Workers were told to take frequent breaks and even spend a few minutes in the cooler if needed.

Finally, the owners decided to close the restaurant early.

“Fundamentally, the way that our space was set up was not able to deal with heat,” Carlin said. “Our HVAC system is not meant to handle this.”

Workers at other Portland restaurants were not so lucky. Some closed early while others tried to stay open as long as possible. The heat triggered power outages that shut down air conditioners and coolers in several restaurants, and employees reported symptoms of heat exhaustion. Workers at Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland’s Old Town went on strike because of the heat. The striking workers were then fired.

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