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‘The Longest Shift’ highlights essential workers who kept Los Angeles running

A new photography exhibition, open through August 21, showcases the Black and Latinx workers who kept L.A. afloat during the pandemic.

‘The Longest Shift’ highlights essential workers who kept Los Angeles running
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. Nicole Luckie (right) said, “I’m finding my way through this. 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.’” [Photo: Sam Comen]

In December of 2020, Los Angeles-based photographer Sam Comen began photographing the essential workers of Los Angeles—from trauma nurses and grocery store cashiers to truckers and custodial staff—and documenting the toll that the pandemic would take on their lives. Reported during the pandemic’s relentless winter wave, Comen’s photographs laid bare the systemic inequalities that forced underpaid and overworked employees to shoulder an unthinkable burden. They also highlighted their courage and resolve. One year to the day after the country’s first stay-at-home order went into effect, Comen published the work, titled The Longest Shift.

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Jennifer Alcantar
Cashier, Super A Foods Grocery Store
Being here at the grocery store, we are front line. We had customers come in here, and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, I have COVID, but I’m fine.’ . . . It makes me upset, thinking they can’t wear their masks just to come and shop for their groceries for like 20 minutes, 10 minutes, 5 minutes, but yet I’m standing in the store for 9 hours, and having my mask is not optional for me.[Photo: Sam Comen]
Those images, which include workers from 15 industries and dozens more jobs, are now on exhibit at the Museum of Art & History Lancaster in Lancaster, California; the show will run through August 21. More than three-quarters of the people photographed are represented by labor unions in Southern California, including the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, a major partner in coordinating interviews. As the pandemic raged on, those unions were helping workers push for stronger pay and job protections. Their message was clear: “Look at what’s happening,” Comen says. “These are our neighbors, our fellow Americans. And how are we treating them? [They’re] standing up despite the odds at great personal risk.”

Carlos Arevalo, Jason Calixto, Esbeida Refugio, and Ray Miller
Custodial Staff, Los Angeles County + USC Hospital
The custodians responsible for cleaning and decontaminating LAC + USC Hospital understand that their work is of critical importance. Jason Calixto (second from left) said, “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. I’ve stayed away from my extended family for 5 months.” [Photo: Sam Comen]
Amado Montejo
Port of Los Angeles Trucker
I lost my brother in Guatemala to COVID on January 6. I kept working because, you know, life goes on, and you have to keep going, although you are not 100% mentally. I thought about going to Guatemala. I wasn’t able to, because I would have to quarantine myself when I arrived in Guatemala, so why was I even going? And then when I returned, I would have to quarantine again. So, no. [Photo: Sam Comen]
Vince Mena, Dale Smith, Kristina “Kady” Kepner, and Brandon Terrazas
City of Los Angeles Fire Department Firefighters
Photographed at Station 3 in Downtown L.A.
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.” [Photo: Sam Comen]
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. We can’t turn a patient away, just because she has COVID. If she’s a pregnant patient, we’re gonna take care of her.” [Photo: Sam Comen]

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