She Has Cancer and Is High-Risk for COVID Complications. But Like Many Essential Farmworkers, She Can’t Stay Home

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July 21, 2020

Sinthia Hernandez has both cancer and diabetes, conditions that put her at a higher risk for complications if she were to contract COVID-19.

But for her, staying home from work until the coronavirus pandemic passes is not an option.

Through her job as a broccoli picker in California’s Salinas Valley, an area that supplies much of the country’s leafy greens, Hernandez provides 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.

“In these times,” Hernandez says, “it’s necessity that makes us work despite the fear we have.”

While millions of people in America have been sheltering in place, Hernandez is one of many members of the country’s largely immigrant agricultural workforce who have been maintaining the country’s food supply throughout the pandemic — and who speak out in a new FRONTLINE investigation about their experiences of having to choose between their health and their jobs.

“They are not giving us the essentials to protect ourselves,” Hernandez says in the above excerpt from COVID’s Hidden Toll, a FRONTLINE documentary releasing July 21.

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).

Through the stories of people including Hernandez, the investigation examines how so far, there are no national mandatory COVID protections specifically for agriculture workers — only voluntary guidelines; how companies don’t have to tell employees about outbreaks 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.

The stakes, health experts say, are high.

“If one farm worker gets sick, you’re going to get a crew, which is typically 30 people, sick,” Dr. Max Cuevas, who runs a network of clinics serving farmworkers, says in the above excerpt from the film. “And if each of those people goes out, they’re going to get three to four other people [sick], because that’s the infection rate. And so the thing snowballs.”

Throughout the pandemic, Cuevas and his team have been making masks and giving them away to farmworkers who have been helping to keep America fed — many of whom, he says, already “live in fear.”

“They don’t want people to know that they’re here undocumented,” he says in the above clip. “There’s that fear of, ‘I could be gone tomorrow if I am taken away. And what’s going to happen to my family?’ It’s a horrible kind of fear that people learn to live with. You try to assure them, ‘Don’t be afraid of that one right now. Be afraid of the virus.’”

For Hernandez, the fear of catching COVID-19 is always there — and her employer’s response to the pandemic isn’t helping. She says she’s expected to bring her own mask to work (as a volunteer with the advocacy organization Líderes Campesinas, she helped to distribute donated masks to her co-workers in the fields), and that she’s “packed like sardines” with other workers as they’re transported to the fields. But she keeps working because of the people who depend on her.

“All of us farmworkers are making a big sacrifice out of necessity… because of hunger, to see our family eat and have a place to live,” she says.

For the full story, watch COVID’s Hidden Toll when it premieres Tues., July 21. The documentary will be available to watch in full at and in the PBS Video App starting that night at 7/6c. It will premiere on PBS stations (check local listings) and on YouTube at 10/9c. The documentary is supported by Chasing the Dream, a public media initiative from WNET in New York that examines poverty, justice and economic opportunity in America. 

This story has been updated to include a reference to Hernandez’s volunteer work with Líderes Campesinas.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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