Amid Layoffs And Changing End Dates, Confusion Over When Census Work Will Wrap Up In LA

A man wearing a face mask walks past a sign encouraging people to complete the 2020 U.S. Census, in Los Angeles, California, August 10, 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

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Last week, Sarah Mengoni started her first shift as a census taker. She was excited to be going door-to-door in her own neighborhood in North Hollywood, helping people to fill out their questionnaires.

"I've just been telling people, I live two blocks away from here. We're neighbors! I'm doing this for our neighborhood!" she said.

Those first shifts went well, despite the occasional slammed door or maskless person.

Since that first day, Mengoni would wake up at 7 a.m. to check her government-issued phone to see where she'd be working. On Wednesday morning, she was assigned to visit households in Van Nuys that afternoon.

But a couple of hours later, she got a message from her supervisor informing her she and several of her co-workers had been laid off. It read:

"Dear Sarah,

Thank you for your participation in the 2020 Census Non-response Follow-up Operation. Because we are approaching completion of the survey, we regret that we must lay off enumerators due to lack of work."

A week after receiving her census bag, ID badge, phone and clipboard, it seemed time to turn it all in.

"It does not make a lot of sense to me," Mengoni said. "It sure seemed like there was a lot more work to be done."

At least as far as available census completion data can tell us, it would seem so. As of the second week of August, when in-person counting began, 40% of LA County households had yet to fill out their census forms.

Stephania Ramirez, Director of Strategic Initiatives with the California Community Foundation, helps oversee LA-based non-profits doing census outreach. She was shocked to hear census enumerators are being let go.

"I am appalled," Ramirez said. "Our numbers do not reflect nearing completion...I don't understand how they can signal that."

RACING THE CLOCK

In recent weeks, census advocates, like Proyecto Pastoral, have been racing against the clock to reach historically undercounted communities and urge participation before the time runs out on the 2020 Census.

The California Complete Count office just distributed 4 million dollars to LA-based non-profits to do last-minute census outreach.

This work has been especially urgent lately because at the beginning of the in-person phase of the Census last month, when enumerators like Mengoni hit the street in L.A. County, response rates in the region were looking dire.

In Los Angeles proper, the response then was even lower than in the county: Nearly 50% of households in the city of Los Angeles hadn't responded. In many census tracts, especially in South LA, South East LA, Downtown and the Westside, those numbers were even higher — around 70% of households had yet to fill out their census forms, signaling a massive undercount.

All of those unresponsive households needed to be reached by a census bureau worker.

Now, according to the Census Bureau website, in-person outreach has nearly done that.

For the Woodland Hills Census Office, where census-taker Mengoni was working, just 20% of unresponsive households still need to be visited by an enumerator, with four weeks left to go until the count closes.

Around the South Gate Census Office, a region with some of the lowest responding tracts in the state, in-person work is 70% complete — but this average includes census tracts that aren't considered hard-to-count.

The Trump administration recently bumped up the deadline for the decennial count to Sept. 30 from the previously planned Oct. 31.

EARLY END DATES

The Census Bureau recently acknowledged that in-person census work may end even earlier in easier to count regions, like San Diego. Bureau officials would not say if any of Los Angeles County would be affected by these earlier end dates.

In the text received by Mengoni, the enumerator, her supervisor explained to the group chat of census workers, "The system is starting to automatically generate termination lists since we are nearing the end of our operation. I suspect we'll all be finished in the next couple of weeks."

We asked the Census Bureau how many enumerators have been laid off in L.A. County. The bureau didn't provide that information. The agency said in a statement: "The Census Bureau does not comment on personnel matters."

But some people took to Reddit to discuss layoffs and changing schedules. One user posted, "Layoffs have already begun in the San Fernando and San Gabriel [valleys]."

Another user posted about light workloads: "I'm in SFV, was assigned one case today. Haven't gotten work any other day this week. This is my first job so I have no idea what to think."

In another statement, the Census Bureau acknowledged that in-person enumeration is wrapping up ahead of schedule:

"The self-response for many of the Southern California ACOs was actually higher than we expected. This means [we] have more great, locally hired dedicated staff available to complete the work. Combined with the higher productivity we are seeing everywhere, we are well on our way to a complete and accurate count.

Our community partners, including state and local [complete] count committee, deserve credit for increasing the self-response rate above expectations."

Mengoni said she didn't understand why she was told there was a lack of work to do when she was still being assigned to new shifts, or how the Census Bureau has made so much progress over just a couple weeks in a region that had such poor response rates as of last month.

"It seems like somehow they are being disingenuous," she said. "I don't know what's happening, but there's a disconnect between all this information. Something is awry."

There's been a twist since: on Thursday this week, Mengoni was reinstated as an enumerator. Her supervisor — who declined to comment for this story — explained to Mengoni that she fought to keep some of her employees. According to Mengoni, other enumerators are still unemployed.