As the coronavirus was spreading wildly through New York City at the beginning of March, the U.S. government was reaching a critical moment in its hiring process for the 2020 decennial census. Clerks offered temporary jobs to thousands of people, who were to be tasked with going door to door and collecting data from households later in the spring.
At one census office, dozens of job applicants arrived daily to stand in a line that at times snaked outside the front door, as people waited for background checks, according to a manager who worked at the office. The manager looked on with anxiety as applicants took turns entering a small, poorly ventilated room, where a worker pressed their finger onto a scanner or piece of paper. Though coronavirus was beginning to be known as a widespread public health risk, it would be weeks before wearing a mask became routine.
The manager, who declined to be named out of fear that speaking to the press could complicate their employment prospects, said they and others raised alarms in early March with regional census staff that the fingerprinting operation should be shuttered and additional health protections were needed. Yet the project ran until March 18, five days after President Donald Trump had declared a national emergency.
“We were in the epicenter of the entire world. My sense was Washington, D.C., really wanted to make sure that we got as much done as possible before we had to close our office.”
“We were in the epicenter of the entire world,” the manager said. But the Census Bureau, which falls under the Department of Commerce, seemed uninterested in taking swift action to protect health: “My sense was Washington, D.C., really wanted to make sure that we got as much done as possible before we had to close our office.”
Census worker concerns regarding Covid-19 didn’t stop there. The manager said that in the weeks that followed, they fielded complaints from at least 15 temporary census employees regarding coronavirus protections, which the manager felt were not taken seriously by the bureau. As the office reopened in May, after two months, staff raised concerns that workers were not required to wear masks at all times, that the density of people in the office was unsafe, that the commute was risky, and telework options were lacking. The Census Bureau fired the manager in mid-June, leaving them with the suspicion that continuing to raise worker safety issues was the motivation.
“The Census Bureau places the highest priority on the health and safety of our field employees,” said a spokesperson for the U.S. Census Bureau in an emailed statement responding to questions from the Intercept. “As such, we consult and cooperate with local public health officials and governments to ensure we are meeting guidelines in communities throughout the United States.”
“We will continue to address our employees’ concerns regarding these matters as they arise,” the spokesperson said.
With New York, along with the rest of the U.S., reopening after months of pandemic shutdowns, most census offices have restarted the sprawling operations that were put on pause in March and April. But observers are raising questions about whether the census will be safely carried out, with infection rates rising again in cities like Houston and regions like the Southeast and door-knockers now scheduled to carry out their work at the peak of hurricane season.
“It is incumbent on the Census Bureau to go above and beyond, to not only protect the health and well-being of its employees, but to ensure that its employees have confidence in the measures that are being taken,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a census consultant for various organizations, who has worked more than three decades on census-related issues.
Time is of the essence. The census is meant to provide a snapshot of the U.S. on April 1 of the year of the count. Delays erode the quality of the data, and the census is already far behind schedule.
The U.S. Constitution indicates that the census should be completed by December 31. That deadline has now been extended to April 30, 2021. And the collection phase, which culminates with door-knockers visiting homes that have not responded, will conclude at the end of October, rather than the end of July. That last phase is critical to reaching historically undercounted demographics, such as immigrants and American Indians.
Bad data can have significant impacts when it comes to how communities are represented in Congress, as well as what kind of federal funds they can access. The data will be used for a process known as apportionment, which determines the number of U.S. representatives each state sends to Capitol Hill. An example of the type of federal funding doled out based on census numbers is the CARES Act, passed to provide coronavirus relief. If a community is miscounted, the distribution of money is skewed.
Completing the Census is considered an essential activity, according to the Census Bureau spokesperson. To protect against the spread of Covid-19, the Bureau provides personal protective equipment to all employees, limits the number of staff that work in an office at one time, and allows telework when possible. A press release on the Census web site indicates that the Bureau follows local guidelines where it comes to requiring use of masks.
If the Census Bureau fails to take adequate health protection measures for its workers, it risks the health of the public as well as the staff, which includes a large number of retirees with Covid-19 health vulnerabilities. It also sets the stage for a high worker turnover, more delays, and further degraded data.
The New York census manager said their office received no direction from regional or national officials when they and a colleague began to discuss Covid-19 with staff in late February or early March. In the second week in March, offices were offered $100 to buy cleaning supplies, a tepid first step at protecting workers. After March 18, the office was shut down. Most of the workers, whose job was to interview and hire census-takers, were given no option to work from home. They were paid for four weeks and then furloughed. Despite objections, managers continued to face pressure to come into the office.
The decennial census is a massive operation. Over the course of more than two years, a temporary workforce of hundreds of thousands must be hired and deployed to tally every household in the U.S. Given the size of the project, small disruptions or changes in plans can turn into huge problems. Lowenthal, the census consultant, said that’s one reason that the bureau might be hesitant to develop new processes to allow telework. She also noted that the bureau goes to great lengths to protect personal information.
Indeed, the justification offered to New York City employees for requiring they work in-office was the possibility that workers could retain potential employees’ information if they worked from home, according to the manager as well as an office worker.
New York City hiring staff was asked to return to offices at the end of May. A code of conduct distributed to employees noted that workers would be provided with two masks and would be required to wear one unless seated at a desk 6 feet from colleagues. The office worker, who declined to be named because they need to keep their job, said workers were also provided with hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes, and were told to clean their phones and keyboards periodically.
However, the worker said, they feel uncomfortable in an enclosed setting where a number of employees work with no mask or their mask under their nose. Not all workstations are positioned 6 feet apart, the worker said, and, since everyone — including management — is a temporary worker, people frequently get up to ask questions, at times without masks.
“This is not a patio in a restaurant that has no roof,” the office worker said. “Imagine being on an airplane and half the people aren’t wearing masks.” The worker has never seen managers enforce mask guidelines.
“This is not a patio in a restaurant that has no roof. Imagine being on an airplane and half the people aren’t wearing masks.”
The manager continued to push for a deep clean, an inspection of the site where fingerprinting would resume, and guidance on how to encourage mask-wearing — before they were let go.
The office manager is not alone in raising these issues on workers’ behalf. In a survey administered by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, which provides research to Congress, less than half of Area Census Office managers said they were satisfied with the regional and national census offices’ communications about the pandemic. And only about half of the managers surveyed in New York were confident in their ability to safely manage census employees and operations.
In comments submitted through the survey, managers raised concerns about whether public health guidelines were being effectively followed. Fifteen managers registered concerns about telework, including that workers were still being required to go to the office throughout April and that there weren’t enough laptops in some areas to make working from home possible for all managers.
“A lot of people are scared,” the office worker said. However, with the economy in a recession, the Census Bureau is one of few employment options in many areas. The office worker has family to support, and calms their anxieties through faith in a higher power. “Maybe if there’s a God, he wants me to keep working,” the worker said. Although the worker sees the risk of coronavirus everywhere, they need the money: “In a way, I go to work very happily.”
After the Intercept sent an inquiry to the Bureau, the office where the clerk works implemented a new, staggered schedule of work shifts. The move was framed as a protective measure against the spread of Covid-19.
For now, most of the census-related health concerns center around the office environment, but door-knockers are beginning to fan out in isolated areas, where a single worker will make contact with numerous homes. Given the size of the workforce nationally, it’s inevitable that some employees and some of the residents interacting with them will have Covid-19. A measure like testing such workers for Covid-19 before they begin the work, which the Census Bureau has not so far committed to do, would only have limited impact, since the job entails continuing to interact with new strangers.
In the end, the number of people who are sickened during the census process will largely rely on the bureau’s ability to communicate safety protocol, provide equipment, and set up appropriate gathering spaces. “The Census Bureau has enough funding to go overboard in terms of spending on PPE” — personal protective equipment — “perhaps even funding and paying for more space to train and fingerprint and carry out other duties in order for employees to feel safe,” said Lowenthal.
To scrap the census and do it over would require a new yearlong planning process, Lowenthal said, and a new round of hiring. Delaying the constitutionally mandated appropriations process would cause significant complications.
However, along with the new outbreaks, many experts are warning of a potential second wave of infections in September. “If the Bureau faces any future disruptions such as natural disasters, like hurricanes — wildfires are also a concern in some parts of the country — or a renewed widespread lockdown of communities because of coronavirus, its ability to produce a census that meets its own quality standards as well as public expectations could be compromised,” said Lowenthal. “It would give the Bureau pause.”