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COVID’s Hidden Toll

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July 21, 2020

While millions of Americans have been sheltering in place, FRONTLINE has been investigating the hidden toll of the pandemic of those who cannot stay home: Agricultural workers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants, who have been deemed essential to the nation’s food supply.

In COVID’s Hidden Toll, numerous farmworkers speak out about their experiences of having to choose between their health and their jobs – and what they say is a lack of protection from their companies. With Latino people nationwide dying from the coronavirus at a disproportionate rate, the film examines outbreaks at several growers and meat packing plants over the past several months, and how new evidence indicates that agricultural workers have faced a heightened risk of contracting the coronavirus.

“I think the average American has no concept of how food reaches our table,” Dr. Max Cuevas, who runs a network of clinics serving farmworkers, says in the documentary. “I think there’s a huge disconnect with those of us who have sheltered in place not understanding how those people work and how much they have to work to make a living, and to make it profitable for the company that they’re working for.”

From journalists Daffodil Altan and Andrés Cediel, COVID’s Hidden Toll is the latest installment in FRONTLINE’s award-winning body of work exposing the hidden realities facing low-wage immigrant workers in the U.S., many of whom are undocumented (Rape in the Fields, Rape on the Night Shift, Trafficked in America). The film is supported by Chasing the Dream, a public media initiative from WNET in New York that examines poverty, justice and economic opportunity in America.

Read more about the documentary, the remarkable production challenges of filming/reporting during a pandemic, and the faculty, students and alums (pictured below) who pulled it off, here.

Clockwise from top left: Lulu Orozco (’20), Daffodil Altan (’04), Andrés Cediel (’04), María José Calderón (’09), Brandon Yadegari (’20), Zachary Stauffer (’08), Jess Alvarenga (’20), Pedro Cota (’20), Rosa Tuirán (’20), Nick Roberts (’20), Molly Forster (’20).

“We’ve found that when news of possible COVID-19 outbreaks circulated among agriculture industry workers, some companies were slow to act. Workers told us they felt pressured by their circumstances — and their employers,” says Altan, the documentary’s correspondent. “And for the many workers who are undocumented, the fear of the virus is coupled with fear about being deported.”

The film examines how so far, there are no national mandatory COVID protections for workers – only voluntary guidelines; how companies don’t have to tell their own employees about potential infections at their worksites; and the efforts to put in place more aggressive measures in California, where many of America’s fruits and vegetables are grown.

“This is a once-in-the-century pandemic. And our workers, they deserve to have laws in place that are going to reflect these incredible challenges that we face,” says Robert Rivas, a California assemblymember who grew up in farmworker housing. “Something like disclosing potential outbreaks on the worksite needs to become the standard in our state and, really, in our country.”

In the film, we meet workers including Sinthia Hernandez, a broccoli picker in the Salinas Valley, a region in California that produces most of the country’s leafy greens. She has cancer and diabetes, making her among those at higher risk for complications if she contracts COVID-19, and she is the sole provider for a household that includes her mother, her children, and her two siblings — one of whom is blind and deaf, and another who is quadriplegic.

“They are not giving us the essentials to protect ourselves,” says Hernandez. But she keeps working in order to provide for her family: “In these times, it’s necessity that makes us work despite the fear we have.”

Her story is echoed by other food supply workers who speak out in COVID’s Hidden Toll.

“Yesterday a coworker showed up to work and she was coughing. She told us she was threatened with her job if she didn’t show up to work,” one worker at a meatpacking plant says, adding that many of his colleagues were told to keep working despite having fevers, throwing up and coughing. “It doesn’t feel like we’re essential workers,” he says. “It feels like we’re slaves.”

On her cell phone, a worker at another company filmed an HR manager addressing workers who walked out of their building in the wake of news that an employee had tested positive. The manager can be heard telling workers to go back in and punch the clock or they — and he — will likely be replaced. “That’s what made us upset, because we do want to work, but we want to be safe,” the woman who filmed the meeting says.

As COVID’s Hidden Toll explores, the stakes are high.

“If we don’t protect workers on the job, they’re going to spread the virus among each other. They’re going to bring it home to their families. It will go into their communities. We’re not going to stop this epidemic. And workers will pay the high price of that,” says David Michaels, who headed OSHA under the Obama administration.

As the coronavirus continues to exact a disproportionate toll on Latino people, COVID’s Hidden Toll is urgent and important viewing about the people who are maintaining America’s food supply, and the companies that employ them.

“When I go to the store and I see broccoli, I say, ‘Wow. Our hands cut it; our hands harvest it,’” says Hernandez. “I think they’re not valuing us enough. I don’t think they value what we’re contributing to this country.”


Production Staff & Crew

Daffodil Altan ( 2004 )

Director/Producer/Correspondent – faculty/lecturer

Jess Alvarenga ( 2020 )

Associate Producer

Maria Calderon ( 2009 )

Co-Producer

Andrés Cediel ( 2004 )

Director/Producer – faculty/lecturer

Pedro Cota ( 2020 )

Associate Producer

Molly Forster ( 2020 )

Additional Research

Lulu Orozco Perez ( 2020 )

Associate Producer

Nick Roberts ( 2020 )

Associate Producer

Zachary Stauffer ( 2008 )

Additional camera work – faculty/lecturer

Rosa Amanda Tuiran Grobet ( 2020 )

Associate Producer

Brandon Yadegari ( 2020 )

Associate Producer


Read all Chronicling COVID-19 stories