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2021 Student Journalism Award, Student Team Portfolio finalist

Essential and Exposed

About the Project

We decided to shine a light on industries that relied on vulnerable but essential workers at high risk of contracting COVID-19 in industries that had not been extensively covered: seafood processing, retail, airports and poultry processing in Arkansas. Because students couldn’t travel in the pandemic, the Howard Center recruited reporting partners from coast to coast.

The resulting project involved about 195 students from the University of Maryland, the University of Arkansas, Boston University and Stanford University. More than 140 students from UMD sent FOIA requests to every state seeking data on COVID-19 occupational health complaints, COVID-19 workplace outbreaks and workers compensation data tied to a COVID-19 illness. Seven data students from UMD analyzed this data, along with thousands of records of COVID-19 complaints sent to state and federal occupational health agencies. They wrestled with the lack of uniformity in reporting workplace COVID outbreaks, narrowing their findings to 10 states with data they were confident about.

Separately, seven data students at the University of Arkansas focused on COVID-19 outbreaks at poultry plants in that state, incorporating national data from UMD into their analysis.

The data work formed the foundation for reporting by 17 UMD students, three students from UArk, five students from BU and one student from Stanford. A team of five audience engagement students from UMD used social media to identify more than 100 potential sources, which was critical because of travel restrictions in the pandemic. We used WhatsApp to communicate with migrant seafood workers in Mexico and the mid-Atlantic states.

We were able to send three UMD students to Reagan National Airport to gather sound for a 20-minute podcast on airport worker safety and send reporters to Tyson plants in Arkansas and a seafood processing plant in Maryland to shoot photos.

To reach migrant seafood workers, we translated our work into Spanish and distributed it online on the Howard Center/Capital News Service website and via social media, along with tips on how workers could report illnesses to OSHA. Abridged versions of all our stories were distributed regionally and nationally by The Associated Press.

Excluding personnel costs for faculty and staff who directed the project, we spent an estimated $3,000 on public records requests and travel.

The stories generated outrage online among readers and, according to one migrant seafood worker, prompted the Mexican consulate to visit workers in Maryland to learn more about workplace conditions there.