Last March, California became the first US state to impose a stay-at-home order in a desperate attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Millions of workers across the state saw their jobs abruptly turn high-risk, or essential to allow millions of others to shelter in place.
Photographer Sam Comen visited dozens of essential workers in Los Angeles, capturing their portraits and perspectives in one of America’s major Covid-19 hotspots. Some of them were first responders, others, many of them Black and Latino, performed the labor that allowed so many more to work from home. Their roles during the crisis exposed stark issues of social injustice, with many performing high-risk work with little public support.
“I wanted us to linger on the human beings behind the face masks,” Comen said. “To forge a connection and foster reverence for these workers who’ve stayed on the job so that society can continue to function. And recognize the crucial importance they’ve always had so that this crisis might spur more equitable conditions in post-pandemic life.”
Below is a selection of Comen’s photographs and motion portraits. You can find the entire series on his website, The Longest Shift. The interviews have been excerpted and edited for clarity.
Jennifer Alcantar, cashier, Super A Foods grocery store
We had customers come in, saying, “Oh, I have Covid, but I’m fine.” Some didn’t wear their masks, even while shopping for just 5, 10 or 20 minutes. There were all these people that don’t even believe in it.
Meanwhile, I was standing in the store for nine hours. Having my mask on was not optional. I wanted to be safe, so I was gonna wear it. Not just for myself, but for my kids, because I knew that after my shift, I had a family to go to, and I wouldn’t want to take this home.
I thank God that we did have jobs, because some people had it worse. But at the same time, I know that they could have helped us more. I know a lot of us want more pay, because we’re risking our families and ourselves as well.
Today we’re here. Tomorrow’s not for granted. Like I always tell the customers, “Have a good day. Be safe.” What else is there to say?
Luis Enrique Moreno, baker, Super A Foods grocery store
It has been a very difficult year. I got Covid and was in the hospital for several days. You do not know if you are going to make it or not. You see a lot of things on television, and you really don’t know if these are your last days.
I had two weeks of sick leave and was out for another two months after that because I still was weak. Several people in my family had it too, but thank God only had mild symptoms.
It felt good to be called an “essential worker”, but at the same time, we also realized that we weren’t valued by people, that they didn’t value our work. While I was on the floor working in front of customers, serving them, some would tell me, “I have Covid right now. I tested positive.”
So, I would like people to understand what an essential worker really is, to not just say “You are an essential worker”, but make you feel like an essential worker. I’d like them to understand the danger and the seriousness of the disease. It is not something you play with; it’s not something where you can say, “I have it now, but tomorrow, it will be gone.”
Fanny Ortiz, home healthcare provider, and Maia
The beginning of the pandemic was really difficult for me as a parent. I am a care provider for my younger daughter, Maia, who’s 14 years-old and was born with total anomalous pulmonary venous reversal (a birth defect of the heart). Maia’s legally blind, quadriplegic and needs care around the clock.
I had been sick for over a month. Maia had been in the hospital the year before. I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t eating well. I didn’t have access to healthcare. Meanwhile, I was doing my job as a mother, as a home care provider, and also working a regular 40-hours job.
And I was petrified. I was worried about who’d care for my daughter if I’d get sick. I didn’t want to leave my other kids with this heavy, heavy burden of taking care of their youngest sister.
I’m no longer working my regular job, but am privileged to get paid through IHSS as a home care provider for Maia. I was scared that once I lost my job I wasn’t going to be able to pay rent. And eventually, I had to decide that to survive, and for my kids to survive, I had to stop paying rent and instead make sure that we all eat and take care of ourselves.
If I was a fierce advocate before, I’m even more fierce now. The working-class people, we always hustle, we’re always doing what we have to do for our families.
(Clockwise from left) Kristina “Kady” Kepner, John Brandt, Calvin Ngo, Brandon Terrazas, Dale Smith, Vince Mena, Los Angeles firefighters, Station 3 in downtown Los Angeles
Dale Smith, captain: We’ve had a couple of healthy firefighters on the job in LA city that have passed from Covid. All the contact that we have within the community definitely raised our exposure levels, and that was pretty tough. We could take all these precautionary measures, but we weren’t immune.
Vince Mena, engineer: We do a lot to help people, but with this virus we could spread it and bring harm to citizens that we were trying to help. We really had to be careful, wash our hands all the time, be consciously thinking about it 24/7.
I don’t think people were always aware that we are just there to help. We were kind of caught in the middle of the political part of the entire thing. Wearing a badge, we could be looked at negatively sometimes, representing the government, even though we’re firefighters. And sometimes it wasn’t recognized that we’re trying to do our best to help people, that we’re human.
Alberto Gomez, candy and toy vendor, photographed at Wilshire Blvd and Vermont Ave
I’ve been doing this for 28 years. The pandemic impacted our work a lot. We could only go out on the weekends, sales dropped. I had to walk more, looking for different areas with more people.
Sometimes, there were ladies who couldn’t afford to buy something for their children. So I cut them a deal. And I know that might make it seem like I was losing out, but I wasn’t. Because God is looking at every one of my actions from above.
(From left) Hector Robles, Hyun Joo Kim, Kim Chow, Maria Alviso, Lance Goosby and Nicole Luckie, USPS letter carriers, Los Angeles’ Foy station
Nicole Luckie: My customers were great. They kept their distance, unless they actually needed to show me something. They always made sure they had a mask on, and I always made sure I had my mask on. The only time I took it off was in my truck while driving to my next location. That way, I could at least breathe a little.
When out on the street, there were customers that would come up to you without a mask on, and then they’d get mad at you for not wanting to talk or take their mail. I was like, “OK, wait a minute, my son has chronic asthma, my mother has kidney failure, and my sister has lupus, so I can’t afford to bring anything home.” I tried to explain it to them. “I have family members with medical conditions, and I need you to put your mask on if you want to talk to me.” Sometimes they’d agree, and sometimes they’d get mad and I’d just walk away.
Kevin Martinez (left) and Charlie Garcia, security officers, ER entrance, Harbor-UCLA medical center
Charlie Garcia: I saw patients coming in coughing. I saw patients coming in all wrapped up and wheezing and stuff like that. It was really tough. Some people coming in with Covid needed a wheelchair, or they needed assistance. We tried to help them out as much as we could.
Kevin Martinez: Sometimes we had to send visitors away from their loved ones. When I had to be the one preventing them from coming in, I looked like the bad guy. It hurt deep down, but there wasn’t anything we could do. These weren’t our rules. These were the county’s rules.
Terri Thompson, ER and trauma nurse, LA county + USC medical center
We began noticing in March that we were having an increase of flu-like symptoms come into our hospital, before we knew it was really Covid. I was scared, I didn’t know what was going on. We started having to improvise every day amid the influx of patients that were coming in.
The first hurdle we had to overcome was fighting for PPE. We didn’t have enough protection to take care of the patients. We were asked to wear the same mask, and I knew that wasn’t safe. We didn’t know how to treat patients. There was no rulebook. There were people coming in the hospital that were sick. I started having friends that were sick, and no one really knew what was going on.
I had never thought I would be facing a pandemic like this in my career. I felt like my services had become so much more valuable overnight than they ever had been, on top of being a mother, a friend, a daughter. There were times when I came home and I cried. There were times when I cried on my way home. There were times where I had to stay over because my co-workers were sick.
The hardest part, though, was not being able to have family in the hospital with the patients. We were patients’ lifelines. It was a change. We were all forced to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, and we’re still doing it.
This has been the most trying time of my career, and I want people to know that we do the best we can with what we have.
Miguel Cuevas, Port of Los Angeles trucker
Being considered an essential worker felt really nice, because it felt we were helping to keep the world going. If we didn’t move things, the country would have stopped.
But at the same time, you go to work with the constant fear of getting sick. Most truck drivers have big commitments – contracts with insurance companies and payments for the truck to stay on top of. Those bills keep coming when you’re sick. Many workers at the port don’t have health insurance, so we were afraid of getting sick and going to the hospital. The hospital bills can be very expensive.
The government didn’t seem to understand our commitments. We didn’t receive the help that you would expect. Companies don’t want to pay us for all the time we spent waiting in line. We didn’t have access to public restrooms. We had to figure out for ourselves how to take care of our basic needs, and that was ugly.
I have had several colleagues that have gotten sick. Many have pulled through after three or four months without being able to work, and others have died.
Jasmine Dashtizad (left), freelance film and TV makeup artist, and Lindsey Clough, freelance wardrobe stylist
Jasmine Dashtizad: I come from an immigrant family. I’ve been working since I was 16 years old. I had never not worked, so when the industry shut down last year it was the first time that, through no doing of my own, I was unemployed. I remember sitting at my laptop, filling in the unemployment form, and starting to cry, because there was this shame I had never experienced before.
Until the pandemic, I wasn’t aware just how exposed I am to my clients. There’s no way for me to do what I do from six feet away. I’ve always worked unmasked, without any gloves, without any PPE. Wearing it constantly in order to protect myself and protect my client took a lot of getting used to.
Lindsey Clough: Going back to work in June, when permits started being issued again was incredibly stressful and kind of overstimulating after 100 days of quarantining with my family. The whole world had changed, really.
The city had put out guidelines and our unions had put out guidelines, but nothing was mandated. A lot of companies sort of picked and chose what they felt was the safest way to do things. I felt, especially in those early months, that it was up to us as the workers to stand up and decide what was safest and what worked best for us.
I don’t have the option to not work and ride this out. I’m responsible for the health insurance for our family. It’s a special type of stress. There are plenty of moments in which I’m like, “This is just clothes,” or “This is just a commercial. This is silly. Why am I doing this?” but I have to support my family. and I’m trying to do it the safest way possible.
(From left) Carlos Arevalo, Jason Calixto, Esbeida Refugio, and Ray Miller, custodial staff, LA county + USC medical center
Esbeida Refugio: I had to stay away from my family. I have a two-year-old son, and it was heartbreaking to leave him, but I was really scared that he was going to get exposed. I take a lot of pride in what we did. I put in all the effort, making sure that these rooms are wiped down properly, so that if anybody else comes in after me they’re safe. At the beginning, it was scary. But now it’s normal. Covid is not going to go away from one day to another.
Jason Calixto: The stress level was high. As a custodian we’re in charge of preventing infection to everybody in the hospital. The burden fell on us to protect not only staff but society, our community, the public.
The hardest part was the distance from my family. I have a small son at home, and live with my wife. But for months, we didn’t see any other relatives. I didn’t see my brother, my sister, my grandmother, my mom, just because I didn’t want to bring anything to them.
All photography, videography, and reporting by Sam Comen. The Longest Shift is a collaboration between the UFCW770 and more than 20 labor unions, foundations, and nonprofits. It was produced by Elizabeth Brennan of BerlinRosen and funded by The James Irvine Foundation, The California Endowment, and The California Community Foundation.