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'Not Enough Time': Census Workers Fear Rushing Count Could Botch Results

With 50 days left to count every person living in the U.S., Census Bureau workers around the country are facing what many consider an increasingly impossible mission.

Already hampered by the coronavirus pandemic, a shortened schedule for counting has exacerbated lingering challenges in dealing with health risks, retaining workers and deploying new technology for the 2020 census, which is now wrapping up in the middle of a historic hurricane season.

"There's just not enough time to do all the work that needs to be done," one office operations supervisor told NPR.

In the week since the Census Bureau announced that all counting efforts would end a month early on Sept. 30, NPR spoke with 13 current and former employees of the bureau — 11 of whom were interviewed on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation for speaking out.

Their perspectives underline the array of difficulties confronting the bureau as it attempts to finish tallying the country's residents, as required once a decade by the Constitution, to determine each state's share of seats in Congress and votes in the Electoral College for the next decade.

The task of reaching the estimated 4 in 10 households nationwide — or around 56 million addresses — that have not yet filled out a census form falls largely on the shoulders of the bureau's door knockers, also known as enumerators, and other temporary workers who support the operations based out of the country's 248 local census offices. In more than half of states and many local communities, census workers are trying to surmount self-response rates even lower than the national average of around 63% with fewer weeks in the field now that the Trump administration has shortened the schedule.

"It just doesn't seem logical to push this with all of these odds against us. You're looking at all this and you're just thinking, 'Are we working on the same team?' " said a census field supervisor in Florida, where growing outbreaks have dampened the bureau's efforts to ramp up operations. "It does not feel like we have the same mission in mind. We're trying to get a complete count. I'm not sure everyone on the team has the same mission."

Enumerators began fanning out nationwide this week after starting door knocking in some parts of the country in mid-July. They are attempting to conduct a socially distanced interview with each unresponsive household in up to six days in total. As a last resort, they may try to speak with their neighbors or building managers. The bureau has relied on these efforts to try to make sure people of color, immigrants and other historically undercounted groups, who are less likely to respond to the census on their own, are not underrepresented in census data.

The urgency to complete the count by Sept. 30, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said in a statement last week, comes from a directive by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the bureau, stemming from pressure to produce the latest state population totals for reapportioning Congress to the president by Dec. 31 as required by federal law.

The scheduling change has stirred up confusion and chaos within many area census offices, which, for months, had planned to count through Oct. 31. That date came from a revised schedule that in April, Ross presented to Congress — and President Trump publicly supported — as a way to overcome pandemic-related delays.

Since then, however, only Democrats in Congress have introduced legislation that would extend legal census deadlines to allow for a longer counting timeline, while Republican leaders have signaled they're willing to cut counting short.

Census field supervisors told NPR that the shortened counting period has made the door-knocking job — which can pay as low as $13.50 an hour in central West Virginia and as high as $30 an hour in California's Bay Area — less enticing for some job applicants.

"People are afraid. They don't want to get sick for a temporary job," the census field supervisor in Florida said.

As of Aug. 1, the bureau's payroll for the 2020 census includes more than 155,000 temporary workers — about a third of the half-million-strong workforce the bureau has said it needs to complete the count. While the bureau said that more than 900,000 job applicants have accepted job offers, concerns about the pandemic have led to more no-shows and dropouts during the training process.

For past counts, the bureau has relied on retirees to help fill its pool of workers, especially during periods of low unemployment. But the pandemic has now made many older adults, who are at higher risk of becoming severely ill, a mismatch for conducting in-person census interviews.

Stanley Grabia, 73, spent around 20 hours training to be a door knocker in Maryland before he decided to quit.

"The older people who are retired and don't really need the money are doing it because they believe in democracy and they believe in the census," said Grabia, a retired attorney with the Department of Veterans Affairs. He said he knew it was time to quit when he saw what he described as "the absolute, total lack of any type of real protection for any of the employees."

In a joint statement released last week with the bureau, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that participating in in-person interviews with the bureau's workers "should present a low risk of transmission of COVID-19."

The bureau said it provides field workers with cloth face coverings and hand sanitizer in addition to training employees to maintain 6 feet of social distance, avoid entering homes and conduct interviews outside as much as possible. Its protocols, the bureau said, have been reviewed by career staff at both the Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC.

But it took months after the CDC began recommending mask wearing in April for the bureau to announce publicly in a statement to NPR that all staffers who interact with the public are required to be masked while working. The bureau had previously said that workers will wear them "if masks are required in the area" where they're door knocking.

Still, some employees at the bureau's area census offices said they don't see a heavy emphasis on worker safety.

"The whole safety thing was way down below the priority to get the job done," a former enumerator, who recently quit after door knocking in the Midwest, told NPR.

The former employee was disappointed that training did not include any extensive discussion about what to do when social distancing was not possible or when encountering someone not wearing a mask.

"It was really up to the census workers to figure it out," said the former enumerator, who did not wear the bureau-issued face covering because it did not fit and instead bought disposable masks to use while working.

Asked for its backup plan in case it cannot complete door-knocking efforts in an area due to COVID-19 or a hurricane, the bureau told NPR in a statement that it is "committed to a complete and accurate count by Sept. 30."

"As [area census offices] have hired and census takers have completed training we have been working to get census takers out into the field as quickly as possible," the bureau said.

In a statement to the House Oversight and Reform Committee last month, Dillingham, the bureau's director, said local offices are conducting "replacement trainings on an ongoing basis" to try to make sure there are enough door knockers. This week, the bureau said it's offering up to an $800 bonus to enumerators who put in more hours in August.

Still, many supervisors at area census offices told NPR they are concerned offices are rushing newly hired temporary workers into the field.

"We're just sending bodies out regardless of whether they're ready or not," said a census field supervisor working in the Mid-Atlantic.

In the scramble to get up and running, some enumerators have been caught in technical delays.

Alex Goulder, a recently hired door knocker in Boulder, Colo., said he lost out on six potential workdays because he was unable to complete online training.

"It's very frustrating because I know that there's this hard deadline," Goulder said. "I know that there are a lot of people out there that need to be counted and that essentially every day that I don't work, there are people that will go uncounted."

Door knockers are also each equipped with an iPhone 8 to collect and upload census responses from the field. But figuring out how to unlock the phone with a passcode and navigate the pre-installed apps has been a steep learning curve for some enumerators, NPR has learned.

"We do not have enough time to hand-hold every single person," an office operations supervisor who specializes in information technology told NPR. "Most enumerators are retired. Sometimes this is their first smartphone. They're more used to flip phones."

The technology is just another challenge piled on top of the pandemic and the time crunch.

"This is what's making my stomach hurt. There's so much that isn't right about this," a census field supervisor in California said. "I know for the next 10 years, it won't be an accurate count. I don't know what we can do about it."

Many census workers said that while they can still carry their equipment and badges, they are dedicated to knocking on as many doors as they can to try to make sure that the census data are as complete as possible and that communities get their fair share in federal funding and political representation.

"One more is better than zero," said the census field supervisor working in the Mid-Atlantic. "I would take that any given day."

The timeline facing census workers may change if Congress does pass a law soon that extends deadlines. But last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., signaled that discussions about the census have not gotten far in negotiations with Republican leaders for the next coronavirus relief package.

This week, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, the top Democrat on the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds the bureau, asked for the Commerce Department inspector general to investigate the decision to speed up the census schedule.

"I believe that this deviation in schedule is driven not by expert opinions of career Census Bureau employees but by external pressure from the White House and the Department of Commerce for perceived political gain," Shaheen wrote to Inspector General Peggy Gustafson.

The last-minute pivot has also raised concerns about the reliability of the count's results for Chris Mihm, managing director of the strategic issues team at the Government Accountability Office. The federal watchdog agency has kept the 2020 census on its list of "high risk" government projects since 2017.

Mihm said Census Bureau officials told the GAO that they were given "hours rather than days or weeks" to revise their plans to finish counting by the end of September.

"Each census has generally been an improvement in terms of the quality and completeness over the preceding census," Mihm added. "We run a very real risk this time of backsliding."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.
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