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Essential Workers Are Being Treated as Expendable

Farmworkers risk their lives so Americans can eat, but they receive little protection from the virus.

April 23, 2020

Thesis project by Wesaam Al-Badry paired with special report by Madeline Leung Coleman, in The Atlantic.

Photograph of a sign in Spanish posted in the ground of a field.

Farmworkers, top, pick, sort, and pack broccoli along a conveyor system at a farm in the Salinas Valley, California. The United Farm Workers union says that many companies are not providing protection for their workers during the pandemic, despite state health guidelines.


Photo of farmworkers picking broccoli in a field with large clouds in the sky.

March and April is peak harvesting season in the Salinas Valley.


Photo of two farmworkers walking white pushing a wheeled device with fields and other farmworkers in the background.

Many farmworkers wore bandanas to protect themselves from dust, pesticides, and the sun before the pandemic. These coverings have taken on another purpose now.


Photograph of an older Hispanic man wearing a dressy cowboy hat waits to be called into the field during berry season.

A man in Watsonville, California, left, waits to be called into the field during berry season. Workers pick strawberries in Salinas, right.


Photo of farmworkers working closely together in the strawberry fields.

Farmworkers work closely together in the strawberry fields, making social distancing practically impossible.


Photograph of an outside sign attached to a building featuring a worker carrying an irrigation line, boasting of this area’s contributions to feeding the country.

A sign, featuring a worker carrying an irrigation line, boasts of this area’s contributions to the country. Nearly 400,000 people work in California’s farms.


Photos of people dressed in fatigues handing out bags of tomatos.

Stay-at-home orders forced some farmworkers to quit their jobs to care for their children. This economic hardship makes paying rent and buying groceries difficult, so some have turned to food banks, left, in Seaside, California, as well as free meals from school, right.


Photo of an undocumented farmworker in a parking lot after picking up food from the United Farm Workers Foundation food bank in Salinas Valley.

More than 50 percent of the country’s farmworkers are undocumented, which disqualifies them from government assistance. An undocumented farmworker picks up food from the United Farm Workers Foundation food bank in Salinas Valley.


Photo of a woman holding a young child in a sparsely furnished apartment looking outside through the window's blinds. A bed is on the floor.

A mother, along with her three children and partner, lives in company-owned affordable housing, but is now facing eviction.


Photograph of sprinklers going off in a very large field.

“The contradiction here with both state government and federal government historically is that farmworkers are excluded from many of the protections that other workers have,” said Torres of the UFW Foundation. “And yet, they are the individuals who provide our food security in this country. That irony is being exacerbated now.”


Production Staff & Crew

Wesaam Al-Badry

Wesaam Al-Badry ( 2020 )