U.S. Census via AP

Census Delays and Extensions Possible Due to Coronavirus Outbreak

IG, lawmakers fault the Census Bureau for providing "little explanation" for its contingency planning.

The Census Bureau is facing increasing pressure from lawmakers and watchdogs to provide new plans for administering its decennial count in the midst of a global health crisis, but the agency vowed to continue its efforts to count everyone in the country in a timely, safe and effective manner. 

As the bureau began sending out its questionnaires this week, the inspector general for the Commerce Department, Census’ parent agency, sent a detailed list of questions of questions to address conducting the count in “a time of unprecedented turmoil and uncertainty.” Peggy Gustafson, the IG, said that Census leadership pointing to the survey being online for the first time ever was insufficient to address concerns. Census’ initial statement “provided little explanation for contingency plans,” Gustafson said. 

The IG requested information on contingency plans Census already has in place for a health crisis, how enumerators will conduct their jobs if social distancing is widespread and how the bureau will communicate with and protect employees. Gustafson specifically asked what personal protective equipment Census will provide to enumerators and how it will train them to use it. 

The request followed a statement by Census this week in which the agency said it would ensure the health and safety of its employees and the public while fulfilling its constitutional obligation to carry out the 2020 count. The bureau has established an internal task force to monitor the novel coronavirus and update its continuity of operations plan, but said its “key message” on its response is its technological innovations. 

“It has never been easier to respond on your own, whether online, over the phone or by mail—all without having to meet a census taker,” the agency said, adding that when people receive their initial letters in the coming days, they will be encouraged “to respond online as soon as you receive your invitation with the provided instructions to go online.” 

Census has estimated about 60% of U.S. residents will respond to the Census online. 

Several House lawmakers, led by Rep. David Price, D-N.C., asked for similar information as the IG, as well as how the outbreak could affect hiring. While Census said in January it was fielding 25,000 applications per day and was on track to meet its hiring goal of 500,000, the Government Accountability Office recently found the agency was consistently missing its hiring targets. It also uncovered shortfalls in the bureau’s IT systems, cybersecurity and partnership development. 

The lawmakers also asked how Census was coordinating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the White House and other agencies, as well as whether it will tap into contingency funds to address the impact of the virus. That followed a request by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials for Census to tap into its emergency contingency funds to update its messaging with the outbreak in mind. The novel coronavirus has “emerged as the most significant” challenge the bureau has faced for its decennial count, NALEO said. 

Census is planning to begin its in-person enumeration at unresponsive households in April, and continuing those operations through July. In a separate letter, more than a dozen House Democrats asked Census to extend its enumeration through at least September. 

The bureau did not respond to an inquiry into whether it would consider extending enumeration, but in its statement expressed an openness to adjusting its schedule. 

“If we need to delay or discontinue nonresponse follow-up visits in a particular community, we will adapt our operation to ensure we get a complete and accurate count,” the agency said. It added it maintained a “significant contingency budget to address costs of operational changes.”

“As needed, we will hire additional workers, manage operations out of different offices or mail additional reminders or questionnaires to areas affected by an outbreak,” Census said. 

Several senators, led by Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., requested a briefing from Census officials about its coronavirus response, and a spokeswoman for the senator said they are working on finalizing a date for that session.