Coronavirus Has The Census Bureau Pushing Back Deadlines

A Census 2020 form is seen Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020, in Toksook Bay, Alaska. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull) (Gregory Bull/Gregory Bull)

The 2020 Census kicked off last week, just a day after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic (yes, seems like a lifetime ago). By now, every household in America is supposed to have received a postcard with Census instructions.

As of today, over 18 million households have already responded — mostly via the new online census portal rolled out this year. Those responses are on track with the Census Bureau's goals, despite the ongoing national health crisis.

The next stage of the decennial count is in-person outreach, scheduled to start next month. That means door-knocking canvassers were supposed to visit homes, checking that everyone participates, even if they don't have access to the internet.

The Census Bureau announced Friday that most of that in-person outreach is being delayed by two weeks as a precaution to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Plus, the overall response deadline scheduled for this summer has also been extended.

While the Census Bureau has modified its schedule, recently hired enumerators (the technical term for the census canvassers hired by the federal government) are feeling anxious about the future of their jobs.

'OF ALL OF OUR WORST NIGHTMARES...'

This week, the Census Bureau announced delays to conducting the decennial count. "This was not anything any of us could've anticipated or planned," Census Bureau Associate Director for Decinnial Programs Al Fontenot said. "Of all of our worst nightmares of things that could've gone wrong with the census, we did not anticipate this set of actions."

Here are the changes being made:

Census Activity Description Delayed until
Census Response Period This is the final deadline for people to fill out the 2020 Census. Aug. 14 (from July 31)
Census Hiring Job interviews, job offers, fingerprinting, background checks and job offers. The online job application will remain open. Apr. 1
Mobile Questionnaire Outreach In-person canvassing at large events to help people fill out the Census. Apr. 13 (from Mar. 30)
Group Quarters Count In-person canvassing conducted at homeless shelters, group homes, college dormitories. Apr. 16 (from Mar. 30-31, Apr. 1)
Early Non-Response Follow Up Canvassers visit households in places with dense student populations and places at risk for an undercount. May 7 (from Apr. 9)
Non-Response Follow Up Canvassers visit all households across the nation that haven't responded. May 28 (from May 13)

WE'RE GONNA NEED MORE ENUMERATORS

The Census Bureau is supposed to have crunched all the national response data and submitted a final report to the president by Dec. 31st. To have that deadline extended, the Bureau would need approval from Congress. "At this time we have not made that request," Fontenot said.

The Census is considering hiring more enumerators to make up for the time lost to the delays, according to Associate Director of Field Operations Tim Olson. Still, the hiring process — interviews, fingerprinting and background checks — is on hold for now. Olson encourages people to apply, even though they won't necessarily hear back.

"Just be on hold as we evaluate how we move forward," he said.

For those who will work as enumerators, the Census Bureau can't say what sort of specific protections it will provide, like masks. "Currently we're not in the field so that is not a current situation for us," Olson said.

"Once we resume operations we certainly will be practicing social distancing, very strong social distancing," he said. When (or if) the agency resumes field operations, Olson said it's unlikely any Census employees would be going door to door in areas considered coronavirus "hot spots."

Tamara Menteer Gonzalez was hired as a 2020 Census enumerator in the state of Washington. She doesn't know what the Census Bureau will provide her to go door-to-door, so she bought this suit to protect herself from COVID-19. (Tamara Menteer Gonzalez)

'I FEEL HAMSTRUNG'

The uncertainty of Census operations has left some recently hired enumerators feeling anxious about the future of their jobs. Tamara Menteer Gonzalez, a 65 year-old from outside of Seattle, was hired to go door to door for the count starting in May. She has emphysema, and considering her age, she feels uncomfortable doing the work without knowing what specific protections she'll have.

She tried emailing the Census Bureau, but said the response she received offered general assurances without saying explicitly how enumerators would be protected.

Partially as an act of defiance, she ended up buying a bodysuit and plastic mask to wear if she does have to visit people's homes.

"Will people open the door if they see me dressed like that? Probably not. But I feel hamstrung," Menteer Gonzalez said. "It's the only thing I can do to control myself from not getting sick and dying."

Menteer Gonzalez said choosing to work for the Census is risky, but she just lost her usual part-time job and needs the money.

Normally she'd be determined to do this work, even in the middle of a national crisis, she said. "When I was younger, I would, but I honestly don't think I'm there anymore. This feels more like life and death."

Menteer Gonzalez said if she doesn't get answers soon, she plans to quit.

'TAP INTO THAT SENSE OF CAMARADERIE'

Census teams organized by L.A. community groups were among the first to feel the impact of the coronavirus. They're tasked with reaching out to the people designated by the Census Bureau as hard-to-count, in a county with one of the largest "hard-to-count" populations in the nation. Add on a pandemic, and everything gets that much tougher.

Last week, those community groups stopped canvassing in-person, and shifted to calling and texting immigrants, renters, seniors, LGBTQ people, homeless people — plus many more who are historically undercounted.

"We are having to adjust our entire campaign," said Alejandra Zarate of We Count LA, which helps community groups develop outreach strategies. "While the census is important, everybody's health and safety is the utmost priority."

The new canvassing protocol will stay in place until after Apr. 1. In the meantime, Zarate is working to encourage census participation online, fully aware that some people in these historically undercounted communities don't have access to the internet. She's trying to stay positive.

"The more we stay connected with each other in untraditional ways, the more we will tap into that sense of camaraderie" and ultimately be counted, Zarate said.