The Longest Shift
About the Project
One year after the first stay-at-home order of the pandemic, workers who never imagined they would be on the front lines are still on the job.
These stills, motion portraits and intimate extended interviews bring us closer than six feet to five dozen Los Angelenos who work the front lines of the pandemic. Some are first responders, others suddenly faced deadly risk on the job. Largely Black and Latinx, often in jobs that expose striking inequities, their roles during this crisis exposed stark issues of social injustice, as many of them perform high-risk work with insufficient public support.
The Longest Shift project aims to forge a specific human connection to the fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters who’ve stepped up in this crisis, so that we may keep them in foremost in our minds as we consider the intersection of work, race, and equity in America, and set an agenda for the future.
The project is entirely grant funded by the James Irvine Foundation, the California Endowment, and the California Community Foundation, and was produced in partnership with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local and more than 20 other labor unions and worker-focused community organizations.
Sample Project Images:
Jennifer Alcantar: Cashier, Super A Foods grocery store
“We get these customers who come in here, and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, I have COVID, but I’m fine,’ and they’re shopping. We’re trying to be safe ourselves, and for somebody to come in and tell you that, it makes me angry. My son has asthma, so it could affect me, because of his breathing problem. So yeah, it gets to me. I’m here, but my brain is running like 1000 miles per hour, just thinking.
A lot of people have passed away from this. It’s terrifying. Today we’re here. We don’t have tomorrow for granted. Like I always tell the customers, ‘Have a good day. Be safe.’ That’s all I can say.”
Uriel Rivera Cortez: Former Amazon Warehouse Worker
“I would like people to put themselves in our shoes and reflect on what it is like to work in a warehouse like this one. I would like all the customers, everyone who buys at Amazon, to care at least a little for the employees. If the people cared a little about essential workers, they would take less advantage of us, and it would be a lot safer for us to go to work and continue to work for the company.”
Jason Calixto, Esbeida Refugio, and Ray Miller: Custodial Staff, LA County + USC Hospital
“The burden falls on us to protect not only staff, but society, our community, and the public. We have to do everything that we can to protect everybody that comes into the hospital, those that visit the hospital, ourselves, and our families as well” said Jason Calixto (left.) Carlos Arevalo (third from left) remembered how it felt when Los Angeles was at the highest level of contagion and the hospital was almost full. “I saw the patients face-to-face. I saw some I thought were about to pass, but thank God they started getting better, and they made a full recovery and were able to go back home.” To keep her two-year-old son safe, Esbeida Refugio (right) leaves him with a babysitter during the week, while she’s working. She said, “That’s the hardest thing. It’s kind of heartbreaking leaving my son, but I’m really scared that he’s gonna get exposed.”
Vince Mena, Dale Smith, Kristina Kepner, and Brandon Terrazas: City of Los Angeles Fire Department Firefighters.
Vince Mena (left) has been with the Los Angeles Fire Department for 34 and a half years, but he never imagined doing this work in a pandemic. He said, “We all have to be a little bit understanding, have some compassion, and get through this together, because we are all in it together. It’s not just a certain group or certain people; it’s everybody in the world, from every walk of life.”
Captain Dale Smith (second from left) said, “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 raises our exposure levels, which has been pretty tough. We can take all these precautionary measures, but we’re not immune to this. It will affect us just like it will anybody else.“
Because Los Angeles County has a public health department, but the City of Los Angeles does not, the mayor asked the fire department to assist with the development of COVID testing sites. Kady Kepner (second from right), Assistant Chief, oversaw that initiative. She shared, “It has definitely been a challenge for all of us, as it has for everyone. We’ve had to implement new protocols, policies, and a whole bunch of new and innovative ways to continue to be able to do our job and provide exceptional customer service to the communities that we serve.”
Alberto Gomez: Candy & Toy Vendor
“Sometimes there are ladies who can’t afford to buy things for their children, so I cut them a deal. I know it seems like I’m losing, but I don’t lose: I know I win. God is looking at every one of my actions from above.”
Hector Robles, Hyun Joo Kim, Kim Chow, Maria Alviso, Lance Goosby, and Nicole Luckie: USPS Letter Carriers, photographed at Los Angeles’ Foy Station
For letter carriers, the pandemic has meant more mail, more parcels, and more precautions. Hyun Joo Kim (second from left) explained, “I have to wear the mask and wear the gloves, even on a hot day. Physically, it is a little hard, but it’s okay. We have to do it.”
Nicole Luckie (right) said, “When you’re out on the street, you have some customers that will come up to you, and they don’t have a mask on, and then they get mad at you when you don’t want to talk to them or take their mail from them. I’m like, ‘Okay, 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.’”
Rebecca Melchor, Sandra Ceja, and Karina Franco: Surgical Technologist and RNs, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center
Rebecca Melchor (left) is a surgical technologist in the Labor and Delivery Operating Room at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, where some of the pregnant patients have tested positive for COVID. She said, “I was part of the first crash COVID C-section that we had. It was an emergency C-section, life and death. Sometimes you feel uneasy. I mean, it’s something you feel like you have to do, though. Nobody else is going to do it.”
Sandra Ceja (center), a Labor and Delivery nurse, worries about her family at home, but also empathizes with her patients. She said, “You try to understand what they’re going through. You do your best to take care of them and be kind, and do the best that you can with your fear.”
Karina Franco (right), has been a nurse for five years and has worked in L&D for one year. Despite the pandemic, she said, “It’s been a good experience overall. I’ve learned so much. It makes me feel proud of myself for trying this specialty, which I really enjoy, and being able to help moms having their babies, especially during this pandemic.”
Visit The Longest Shift website to see more images and view the project trailer.
Copyright © 2021 Sam Comen
“Comen is best known for his environmental portrait essays that feature evocative California locales. As a documentary photographer, he has long focused on themes of American identity, community-building, immigration, democracy, and social justice.”
—Taína Caragol, National Portrait Gallery, Curator of Painting and Sculpture and Latino Art and History.
Sam specializes in shooting environmental portraits of everyday heroes as well as leaders, actors, musicians, and artists for national publications.
Currently on tour across the United States is Comen’s series The Newest Americans: portraits of U.S. citizens immediately before and after taking the oath, produced in partnership with The California Museum in Sacramento. His work is also traveling the US with the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s American Portraiture Today exhibition.
He’s twice exhibited with the National Portrait Gallery, and his work is held in the permanent collections of Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and The Library of Congress.
Great photos and interesting commentaries by the photographer’s different subjects! All of these stories add to the vast archives of these tumultuous times and living thru the Covid Pandemic.
Terrific photos and stories. We’ve seen a lot about doctors and nurses, it’s good that you shared stories and images from the other front-line workers who have gotten less attention like the postal workers and cashiers. Well done. They are all heroes!