Essential and Unprotected


DR. MAX CUEVAS: I think the average American has no concept of how food reaches our table. We don’t know how meat is processed. How it’s raised. Where it’s grown. We have no idea where lettuce comes from. We have no idea how it’s harvested. We don’t know what it takes to produce that. People think that this workforce is expendable. One gets sick, there’s ten more in line to do it.


RANEY ARONSON: As the coronavirus has upended life as we know it, the true impact of the outbreak on communities like America's largely immigrant agricultural workforce is still being measured. 


DAFFODIL ALTAN: I think one of the challenges for essential workers is to have been deemed and called essential but then to have not been given the essential protections you need at work. 


ARONSON: Journalists Daffodil Altan and Andrés Cediel have been reporting on the lives of undocumented people in the U.S. for years making films such as Rape in the Fields, and Trafficked in America. For their new FRONTLINE documentary, COVID'S HIDDEN TOLL, they spent months investigating how agricultural workers deemed essential to the nation's food supply are navigating the pandemic.


I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE, and this is The Frontline Dispatch.


FUNDER: The FRONTLINE Dispatch is made possible by the Abrams Foundation committed to excellence in journalism. And by the WGBH Catalyst Fund. Support for The FRONTLINE Dispatch also comes from the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. Early detection is key to catching and treating many cancers. You can learn more about the innovative programs at mass-general-dot-org-slash-cancer. Mass General Cancer Center: everyday amazing.


ARONSON: Daffodil, Andrés, so glad you could join me on The Dispatch.


ANDRÉS CEDIEL: Thank you, thanks for having us. 


DAFFODIL ALTAN: Thanks for having us.


ARONSON: So Daffodil, I want to start with you. And I want you to tell us the story about how you first began to hear from a longtime source of yours about what was going on.


ALTAN: So when we went into shelter in place in California, we were the first state to do so. And we just started talking between us about what was going on? What would this mean? And we had heard from Maricruz Ladino who we met seven years ago for the film we were working on, Rape in the Fields, for FRONTLINE, and she is a longtime California resident. She's been in agriculture all her life. She's been a truck driver. She's done quality control. So she had a lot of questions that I think tipped us off to the questions that we needed to be thinking about and asking you know, safety procedures, do we need to wear masks? What's work going to look like? How this was going to evolve as the harvest was coming — what is this going to look like and mean for potentially the spread of the virus? 


ARONSON: So I mean, did you pick up the phone and call Andrés and say, ‘Hey, you know, this might actually be our next story. This is something we need to keep our eyes out for,’ or what happened next? 


ALTAN: Yeah we started talking again, you know, I think because we've reported in vulnerable communities, we were thinking about the janitors, we were thinking about, you know, the cabin service cleaners. You started hearing those early stories of, ‘Hey, we're, we're getting caught up in this and we don't have any protection. No one is seeing us. No one is thinking about us.’ And that's something that's been sort of our body of work. And so we started talking again about what's going to happen to the people who we've reported with and on, who are often overseen who aren't taken into account when they need to be but who were there at critical junctures, who do very important work in terms of, you know, keeping the offices clean, in terms of picking our food, the airplanes clean. So we knew likely from what we were seeing, and what we're hearing in the early stories about the agricultural community that when infection started, this wasn't going to be good.


NEWSREEL: COVID-19 is disrupting the farming industry on many levels...the country’s two and a half million farm workers are continuing to go to work every day...we’re talking about farmworkers those essential workers who remain in the fields picking our fruits and vegetables, so what’s being done to keep them safe?


ARONSON: Yeah, Andrés, were you surprised by what you started to hear in the beginning? Or did you think this is just you know, business as usual, that they would be unprotected? What was going through your mind?


CEDIEL: Oh it was clear to me, based on all the reporting that this was an industry that wasn't going to be prepared to protect the workers, mostly because these workers haven't had protections for years and for decades, and it's been a long battle for them to be able to have any sorts of protections. You know, something that happened right before the pandemic was that the Trump administration enacted a policy which has been referred to as public charge, which means that anybody who's undocumented who seeks public services, be that food stamps or some other public service, that could end up going on their record and impede them from future, impede them from in the future going to get some sort of pathway to citizenship. So what that did is that scared a lot of workers to be able to go seek any kinds of services at all because they're going to be targeted. Now, the timing of this is that happened right before the pandemic, and that even though medical services are exempt from this, the message was sent to the undocumented community that if you go and get help, you may be put in line to be deported. So people are afraid to go to the doctor. People are afraid to go to the county hospital. And so it was looking like a situation where there's going to be a lot of people who were under the radar, who were primed to get sick and not going to get help.


ARONSON: You guys set your film in Monterey County, so particularly Salinas Valley. Daffodil, tell me why there.


ALTAN: So, Salinas is known as the salad bowl of the country. Most of the country's greens come from Salinas. And so this is a tremendously important producing region. And California as a state is the biggest ag producing state in the country. So most of the country's nuts, fruits, vegetables are coming from California. So really anywhere we landed, was going to be significant. But Monterey became the place that we started to really spend time in and look at because it's not unlike other agricultural counties. They were in some ways ahead of other counties in issuing early safety guidelines for the agricultural community. But a lot of the problems are still there. You still have, you know, a population that's underpaid, you still have migration of workers, you still have a lot of the same problems that you have throughout the rest of the state. We were wanting to find out once the infections started, how big the problem was, how many farmworkers, how many people in the agricultural sector, were getting sick. And, you know, most counties were not releasing that information, companies were not releasing that information. So it was difficult to get. So, Monterey, actually in May began releasing industry data, they still don't release information about companies and where infections have happened. But they do break down, they are breaking down infections by industry. And what's that? What that has told us and what a recent analysis found, because they have that industry data, they're able to see now that farmworkers are three times as likely to get COVID-19 than other workers. So that's significant.


ARONSON: Right. So we really don't know what the rest of California or even the country looks like in those, in that regard.


CEDIEL: Yeah, we were looking for data all over the place. And at one point, we started asking all the top ag counties for the data and we were just getting a lot of responses that say, ‘They don't release the data, they don't release the data.’ So then we started reaching out to some other researchers. But we also found some research out of U.C. San Diego. And this was a study that was done of all counties in the United States anywhere that somebody had gotten COVID-19 and they overlaid it with various factors, controlling for poverty, controlling for English as a second language. And what they found out is wherever there are counties where there are more farmworkers, more people are dying of COVID-19. But the more surprising part about those studies was that what they found out is what was missing in their data. And what their research showed, is that there appears to be many more people who are dying, who are completely off the radar. They're dying at home and they're not being diagnosed. And what it’s pointing towards is that there's a whole population that we're not seeing that's being affected by this pandemic.


ARONSON: I mean one of the interesting things you also learned, I know, is that companies are not obligated to report their numbers. Can you just tell me about that a little bit? What's the reasoning for that? What's the reasoning behind that? And what did you find out? 


CEDIEL: Well, you know, what's interesting is no company has to report who is getting sick at their work. Even where I work at the University of California, I just got a notice saying that even though we may want to know if somebody in our unit has gotten sick, they're not going to release that data because of medical privacy laws. So I think there's a disconnect between what workers feel like they want to know, what public health officials need to know to be able to control the pandemic, and what companies are willing to disclose. And to some degree, we have to figure out as a society, how we can move forward and protect people, but also get the essential work done. So it's a tough balance that a lot of companies are working with right now.


ARONSON: So Daffodil, I just want you to talk to me a little bit as you're like, you know, starting to get this data, you're starting to, you know, investigate, what were you finding the most troubling or surprising even?


ALTAN: It was interesting because there's a lot of talk about protection and avoiding an infection at a worksite and PPE and what we need. But I wasn't hearing enough about what happens when you have an infection at work? What are you supposed to do as an employer? What are the rules? Or is there anything you have to do? And it turns out, there's nothing you technically have to do. There are just recommendations for what you should do. And so imagine going to work and being in your office and, you know, people start whispering and hearing about somebody being potentially infected, you want your employer to tell you something, not necessarily who, you know, we understand there are privacy issues, but you want to know something. And what we were finding was the workers weren't getting anything or they were getting denials, or they were being told everything was fine. And I think that's what was, you know, that was provoking a lot of anxieties. You don't know what's happening. So you don't know How many people are sick you don't know, your own degree of exposure and just that fear and then having to go to work every day not knowing and not having answers is what was provoking a lot of the anxiety, the fear in the workers we were speaking to.


ARONSON: So I was hoping you could talk to me a little bit about Sinthia Hernandez. And just what is her story and why did you want to tell her story?


CEDIEL: Well, most of our work, especially in the undocumented community is about building a lot of trust and for us, that's always meant meeting with people having coffee, having lunch, meeting the family, getting to know them in a way that they understand who we are and where we're coming from, and proceeding very slowly. And we didn't have the opportunity to do that during this project. We couldn't even really meet for coffee. But when we ran into Sinthia and she says, ‘I want to talk, I want to go on camera.’ That's the person that we're always looking for: somebody that doesn't need to be convinced to go on camera or somebody who wants to go on camera. And I think what happened with Sinthia is, as you can see in the film, she has so many things, so many challenges right now: her own health, the health of her family, the precariousness of her economic situation. And I think that she was just fed up and just felt like she needed to talk. 


ARONSON: You know, when you think of COVID coming in, and you know, just really amplifying some of the issues this community has faced, what do you see in terms of Sinthia and the challenges she faced?


CEDIEL: I mean, there's a lot of people who don't have health care, just plain and simple. A lot of people who are here undocumented, they don't have access to care. If there is, if there are free services that are available to them, they don't know about them. They're scared to go and get medical care. And they'll just suffer at home and just keep working. So, Sinthia was different in that she was able to go, you can see her in the film, and she has all her pills and she is going and getting medical care. But she's in a very precarious position health wise. But for a lot of people who are working on the fringes, they don't have that time they don't have access, they can't go and get it so they continue to suffer and their ailments get worse. And that's one of the problems especially with COVID is if you're not getting care early, it can progress until the point where you're in a dire situation. And so that's one of the scariest things for this population.


ALTAN: Yeah and also, it's just economic. I mean, I heard from people who were like, ‘How, this test, how much is it going to cost? I'm not going to go get tested, it's going to be expensive. I don't have health insurance.’ And so, one of the doctors that we speak to in the film said ‘don't be afraid of being undocumented, being deported right now, be afraid of the virus.’ 


CUEVAS: When our State and Federal Governments announced that the farmworker was a part of the essential workforce, included with health care, first responders, police, — but it’s not your middle class essential worker that people are talking about. Farmworkers, a lot of them do in fact live in fear. They don't want people to know that they're here undocumented. 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. And it’s understandable. You try to assure them that well, don't be afraid of that one right now. Be afraid of the virus.


ARONSON: Daffodil, you're talking about Dr. Cuevas, and he's, you know, one of the most dynamic characters in your film. Tell me a little bit about him and what he was seeing in this landscape as COVID is coming on the scene and, and what the work he was doing.


ALTAN: Yeah, so Dr. Cuevas you know, his parents were farmworkers. So he grew up in California as a farmworker. And so he truly understands the community because this is where he comes from. And so he has been operating, you know, more than 20 years in the Salinas area. He has a whole network of clinics, and they're all you know, kind of spread out in remote areas because that's where you need to place, you know, health care and health care access for the farmworker population. So, the vast majority of his patients are agriculture connected or related. And they do a lot of outreach work. And they do a lot of work to educate and get people to get the services they need. But what they were concerned with when, you know, shelter in place, you know, was put into place and they couldn't, they had to operate in a limited way was: what was going to happen with the harvest? Were people going to have the protection, enough protection to protect themselves? And so he decided with the staff to just start making, they set a goal of making 10,000 masks. And so they just started sewing and making these masks, but also started working with a coalition of stakeholders including the grower community to try to figure out how to educate the farmworkers, how to educate businesses about what you need to do at the workplace, to really mitigate, to contain, you know, and he's a big advocate of on-site testing. And right now actually, he's currently, with a U.C. researcher there, they've ramped up testing. So his goal is to test 5,000 farmworkers. And I think once that happens, we're going to know a lot more about the degree of spread among the farmworker community.


ARONSON: One of the questions that I had, you know, when I was watching Dr. Cuevas and his team making the masks and going to the trucks in the morning and handing out the masks is, you know, what is the company responsibility here? And what are you finding companies are doing now? I mean, as the pandemic has been going on for months now, are you seeing companies start to provide masks at least the companies that you guys looked at.


CEDIEL: Yeah, there's a wide range in terms of what companies are doing. I think the, you know, there's companies that are doing everything to the letter in terms of the recommendations and doing all that and more, and they're providing masks and they're instituting social distancing. They're giving people paid sick leave. So there's a lot of companies out there that are really genuinely caring about their workers and the health of their workers and their families and doing the right thing. And then, of course, what we've found in this industry is that there's just a wide range of actors. So then there's situations in terms of where Sinthia was working in the contractor that she was working with was not providing masks. So even though there was a county order in which essential workers needed to wear masks, it wasn't clear who was to provide the masks. So it was Sinthia herself who brought the masks to the workers to help try to take care of their health and her health. So there's just a huge range of what companies are doing,


ALTAN: But what's lacking right now is any sort of uniform requirement for companies to follow. And that's in any industry, in this industry as well. So, you know, companies take it upon themselves to either be, you know, very forward thinking and try to do everything to protect the company and their workers. Or they wait until an outbreak happens and then they rush to try to, you know, put, get people PPE and put separators in place and try to contain the virus. But as we've seen, and as we see in the film, by that point, it's often too late. The virus has moved very quickly.


ARONSON: We'll be back to our conversation with Andrés and Daffodil, right after this message. 


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ARONSON: You know, one thing I wanted to talk to you guys about, of course, you looked at farmworkers but you also looked at the meatpacking industry and you know, of course you guys have experienced in that area as well. So I was hoping you can give us a picture of what's going on there.


CEDIEL: Well, the meatpacking industry was hit very hard by the pandemic very early on with some of the biggest outbreaks in the country happening at meatpacking plants and when we were reporting in Monterey County we heard about one of the biggest meatpacking outbreaks in California not far from where we were. And we went to go look at what was going on there. And what we found was very similar to what was happening around the country and that is that workers were coming in, and there was not protections available for them at the beginning of the pandemic and the virus quickly spread throughout the plant, and people were getting sick in dozens, hundreds at a time. And what was going on was they would also bring that virus back home to their families, so that the communities around the meatpacking plants were experiencing some of the fastest infection growth rates in the country.


ARCHIVE: At least 138 employees tested positive for COVID-19 at a meatpacking plant…. Meat processing plants around the country have become COVID-19 hotspots… Outbreaks…. At least 10,000 meatpacking workersA dozen plants in eight states have either closed or reduced hours in response to the outbreak… 


CEDIEL: You know, this is one of the reasons why it's important to pay attention to what's happening at these workplaces, because those workplaces then affect the community. Then we found in meatpacking plants that we were looking at that we could see that there was these huge outbreaks happening. But we also know in the same way that in the farm community, in the farming community, that there's a range of actors, there's also a range of actors in the meatpacking plants. In our previous reporting, we were seeing workers who were employing child labor, who were working the night shift, who are being trafficked. These are off-the-radar, small, non-unionized meatpacking plants. Even at the big ones where there's a lot more transparency, where some of the companies were actually releasing the data, we were seeing these huge outbreaks. Now that there's some level of protection being given to the workers, the numbers aren't, haven't spiked as high but the numbers haven't gone away. So one of the things if you, the few numbers that are out there that are tracking outbreaks at meatpacking plants actually show that the outbreaks are relatively consistent. Because what happens is when the workers get sick, and they go home, and they take two weeks off, somebody else is hired to come and take their place. And then those people are getting sick. And it's just a continuous cycle right now people going in and getting sick and going in and getting sick. The problem hasn't gone away at all.


ARONSON: Dr. Cuevas also said something that really struck me, the idea that, you know, the average American doesn't necessarily know what it takes to get the food that's actually on our plates. Talk to me a little bit about what you think Americans think about these workers out there.


ALTAN: How many farmworkers do you personally know? I mean, have you ever just spent time with a farmworker or someone who works in a meatpacking plant? Have you ever had coffee with them? Do you know anything about their lives? You know, the accountability, understanding the scope of the problem is critical. 


CUEVAS: No one has ever focused on what a farmworker is or does — all of a sudden they’re being called essential workers and a lot of people out there right now are saying what does that mean? Why are people taking that much interest in what we do? It’s not known how many exactly of that workforce are undocumented and so they’ve got that added dilemma and stigma that they’re living with. 


ALTAN: Just knowing who it is. Who is it that picks the lettuce? Who is it that picks your broccoli? What is their life like? Aren't we all in this COVID situation together? Aren't we all afraid for our children and our, you know, family members and just the unknown? And so I think part of what Dr. Cuevas is saying is because he's of this community, because he was a farmworker, is understanding just the work alone. I mean, just seeing and being there on the worksite. And just at four in the morning, what has to happen to get to work, to begin the work, you know, how much you've done by nine, 10, 11 in the morning, and you know, just how far that food travels. It's just, we're disconnected from the human being who's making that happen. Dr. Cuevas also said this is not unskilled work, it's actually skilled work. It's difficult work. It's learned work. You know, growers value their, the crews that they have, they rehire the same people often because they really value the skill that they have. And so I think we just don't understand that universe, you know there's so little in the way of protection still for the farmworker community.


ARONSON: Yeah, I'm glad you landed there because I wanted to know, you know, you guys did speak to Fed OSHA. And I want to know what could be done for these workers right now, at the federal level.


CEDIEL: So right now they've issued recommendations for companies to follow. The theory behind that is that each workplace knows their workplace best and will know what they can do and what they need to do to keep their workplace safe. But we see that there are problems happening right now. And there's no enforcement. There's no standard for everybody. So that's something that Federal OSHA could do right now, which would then require employers to provide these protections. And then if they're enforceable, we would know if people were actually being protected or not. Right now the hot spots are happening in low wage work, the people who have to go to work right now are the people who are vulnerable and who are not being protected. So if we can stop the pandemic there, that's going to help all of us in society.


ARONSON: One of the things I was hoping you guys could both comment on is, you know, because you have been covering this community for a long time. What do you see that's different now? 


CEDIEL: I mean, I think on one hand, you know, I want to say that, you know, things are getting better in this farm-working community and that there are more protections over time, because clearly, they are. But at the same time, there's so many serious systemic issues with how farmworkers live and work in all the challenges that they have. That there's a lot of ways in which it's not getting better. There's a lot of work being done in California, but it's really incremental. And at the end of the day, this community is still down at the bottom economically and in terms of protections, and especially because so many of them are undocumented. So there hasn't been a lot of progress made.


ALTAN: With the undocumented part. That's still the biggest elephant in the room. I mean, at this point, when the pandemic started in California, the situation was that there were worker shortages. Growers, processors, producers did not have enough workers. So, you know, I think it's, what's shifted and what had happened just before, you know, in December is that a House Bill had passed that was, had a lot of industry support for putting, you know, undocumented farmworkers on a path to citizenship, eventual citizenship to increasing the number of H-2A workers because growers understand now that you can't keep an undocumented workforce like this forever, because it affects them as well. And so that's still sort of the biggest and central issue because from that stems so many things, and if you are living here undocumented, you're going to feel like you're criminalized. Even if you're called essential, you can still potentially be deported. So what happens is, just like we found in our other films, when you're in that situation, you're not going to speak out if you're sexually assaulted, if you're being labor trafficked, and again, now if you have COVID-19, you're going to be afraid to speak out. So I think keeping an entire workforce that technically has rights, but doesn't always know that they do because they're being simultaneously criminalized. It's sort of what's at the heart of this problem.


ARONSON: Andrés and Daffodil, thank you so much for being on The Dispatch, and we'll keep reporting this issue, obviously, going forward with you both. 


ALTAN: Thank you, Raney.


CEDIEL: Thank you. 


ARONSON: Our new film — COVID’S HIDDEN TOLL — is supported by Chasing the Dream, a public media initiative from WNET in New York that examines poverty, justice and economic opportunity in America.


COVID’S HIDDEN TOLL is streaming in full at FRONTLINE DOT ORG, where you can watch, read, and listen to more of our reporting on the coronavirus pandemic. 


Our podcast producers are Max Green and James Edwards. 


Our production assistant is Lucie Sullivan.


Katherine Griwert is our editorial coordinating producer. 


Our senior editors are Lauren Ezell and Sarah Childress. Editing and production help from Lauren Prestileo. 


Frank Koughan is senior producer.


Andrew Metz is our managing editor.


I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE. 


Music by Stellwagen Symphonette. 


The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced at WGBH and powered by PRX.

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