People walk past posters encouraging participation in the 2020 Census, Wednesday, April 1, 2020, in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood.

People walk past posters encouraging participation in the 2020 Census, Wednesday, April 1, 2020, in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. Ted S. Warren/AP

900,000 Accept Census Job Offers; Bureau Outlines New Plans to Keep Workers and Public Safe

Census promises PPE and social distancing practices during in-person count.

As the Census Bureau has made significant adjustments to its decennial count operations and timelines due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, it is making new promises to the nearly 1 million temporary employees who have accepted job offers to keep them safe. 

Census has pushed back many of its normal timeframes but is now gearing up to begin its in-person enumeration for the 2020 count. It has just about completed its process to update address databases and hand delivered paper questionnaires to housing units without standard addresses and is preparing to massively increase hiring. 

More than 900,000 applicants have accepted job offers from Census, said Tim Olson, the bureau’s associate director for field operations. Nearly 80% of those have already provided fingerprints, and 500,000 have passed their background checks and are ready to begin working. Census expects to need 500,000 temporary employees to carry out its in-person counts for households that did not respond to mailers, but will hire more to ensure it has a sufficient number of workers. It expects some applicants to drop out of the process—Olson noted that one-third of applicants were part of an older age group at risk for severe illness from COVID-19—or fail background checks. Olson said all 248 area census offices are currently in the final stages of onboarding employees. 

Despite the pandemic, he said, “We are in an incredibly good place to be fully staffed and conduct non-response follow up as planned.” 

Last month, the Government Accountability Office said Census was likely to encounter challenges during its efforts to hire more employees than it had planned for "within compressed timeframes.” The bureau had exceeded its selection goals in March when it paused hiring, GAO said, though it will now have to onboard and train those workers in an altered, socially distanced environment and under tighter deadlines. GAO added that it has surveyed area census office managers and they have raised concerns related to worker safety and the effect of safety measures on staffing levels. The managers also said the Census Bureau has not ensured offices can continue operations remotely if coronavirus spikes force new closures.

The background checks have also caused some difficulties for Census, which has faced longer-than-expected wait times, creating a backlog for applicants.

Most enumerators will begin training July 31 and start their actual work Aug. 11. Ten-thousand temporary employees began their training this week for a soft rollout of in-person enumeration to begin July 23. The workers will begin receiving pay at the start of their training. 

Al Fontenot, associate director for decennial census programs, said Census has weighed several factors for selecting areas for its soft launch, such as whether it is safe based on national guidelines and the local state’s reopening phase, whether restrictions on large gatherings and retail businesses are relaxed and if the bureau itself is ready. On the latter point, Fontenot specified employees must be ready and willing to show up with adequate personal protective equipment available. 

Census has updated its policy to require all of its employees who have any public interaction to wear masks regardless of location. Olson said the bureau has acquired 40 million items of PPE, including 2.4 million masks, 14.4 million individual gloves, 3.6 million individual hand sanitizer bottles and other supplies. Those supplies are being distributed to all 248 area offices. 

Olson pledged Census will “protect every employee we have” with PPE and a mandate to socially distance in every interaction. Each enumerator will receive a PPE kit, he said, including “a number” of reusable, washable masks, gloves and hand sanitizer bottles to last the duration of their four-to-eight week service with Census. The bureau has instructed enumerators to knock on doors and step back to maintain distance with individuals they are interviewing, and it has for the first time prohibited employees from entering a domicile. 

Census has been forced to make significant adjustments to smaller parts of its operations, such as counting homeless, college and tribal and remote populations. It has already asked Congress for authority to push back its deadline past the end of the year for data that will determine apportionment and redistricting. The bureau has yet to receive that authority, but Fontenot warned it is already a moot point. 

“We are past the window of being able to get those counts by those dates at this point,” he said. 

Olson added, however, there could be a benefit to the current situation for Census operations.

If people are working from home or otherwise more likely to be home due to the pandemic, he said, “it will make the opportunity to reach them much easier, so that would be a positive.”