Civic Engagement is Not Perfect: Being a Census Worker During a Pandemic
by Jessica Zaldana
My journey as Census-Taker almost began with the last census(2010), around the same time I began volunteering as a poll worker. I cannot remember if it was a voter or a poll worker who brought up the 2010 Census to me, but by the end of the conversation, I could not believe I’d just missed the opportunity to be a census worker! I really believe in civic engagement, but there was nothing I could do except wait for the next census. 10 years! As the 2020 Census drew closer, the public awareness campaigns for the 2020 Census helped me recall the mental note I had made back in 2010 to sign up.
Around November 2019, I filled out the official application on the 2020 Census website. Early in 2020, I noticed I had missed a call from an unknown number. I checked my voicemail. As it turned out, I had missed a call from the Census Bureau. I returned the call via the number they left in voicemail without success. I kept reaching an automated message and I somehow kept missing Census Bureau’s calls. For many days, I would miss calls and follow-up without success, until finally, I managed to reach a clerk. They let me know that the specific positions I had applied for were no longer available; they also did not have any similar ones available. The clerk offered that, if I was still interested in working for the Census Bureau, they could consider my application for other roles. So, after my information was confirmed, the clerk made a note on my application. I was told that I would receive a call in a few weeks.
Around early March, I received another phone call, which I missed again. I returned immediately. This time, I had more success in reaching someone right away. The clerk took a message and would have their supervisor call me back. I again received multiple calls back, and again, I somehow managed to miss them. The phone numbers, including the area codes, were different each time. In an attempt to reach someone, I began to call back the missed number rather than the number left in voicemail. I also kept my phone in hand to make sure I did not miss another call. Strangely, my phone would light up alerting me to an incoming call, but my phone would not ring. Even more strange, this only happened with census-related numbers; my phone rang for all other calls. Finally, had I discovered how I kept missing the census calls... my phone wasn’t ringing when the Census Bureau called.
After another series of back-and-forth calls and messages, I was finally able to speak to the hiring manager. I found out I was to be a Census Taker.
In retrospect, this difficulty in reaching the Census Bureau foreshadowed some logistical problems to come.
Soon, I underwent a background check. I had my fingerprints taken. I filled out all the necessary paperwork. Then, everything came to a screeching halt on March 18 due to COVID-19. Communication with the Census Bureau was limited. I received an e-mail on April 13 stating that census interviews and other related activities would possibly continue after June 1.
Sometime later in May, I received a phone call from the Census Bureau. The clerk asked me if I was still interested in working as a Census Taker. At that point, the Census Bureau was trying to resume operations by first finding out who was still willing to work in the field, and then determine where those potential hires had left off in the hiring process pre-pandemic. In my case, I had already undergone the background check and completed my paperwork. That left only training in my case; I let the clerk know I was definitely still interested in a position. Before the call ended, they let me know that I would be contacted again sometime in June with more information. Instead, around the last week of July, I received a series of e-mails with a date and training location for my orientation.
The series of events that followed can be best described as a whirlwind. In all fairness, it is a challenge for the U.S. government to plan and coordinate a population count under normal circumstances. When you add a pandemic and unrest into the equation, new obstacles are bound to arise. The pause in operations had caused technical glitches and communication issues, many volunteers were out of practice at performing their roles, and many, if not most of the procedures, were now outdated due to the pandemic. The census-worker orientation itself bespoke widespread general confusion.
I remember arriving early to orientation. Orientation took place at a religious temple on the outside grounds. There were no posted signs anywhere directing census workers, so I walked the property until I found a makeshift orientation area in a semi-enclosed location with no AC, just some tables, boxes, and a few people. Luckily, I had stumbled upon the training area where the 2020 Census staff waited for new hires to turn up. I informed them of the many people gathered by an outdoor bench area. After everyone was brought to the training location, check-in eventually began. To be fair the training staff was doing their best.
The staff divided everyone according to their training session group, distribute folders filled with any remaining paperwork, and verified two forms of identification per person while taking attendance. The orientation took about two hours. Supplies and materials were distributed, paperwork completed, and phones were set up so they would be ready to use during fieldwork. Although the training was brief, it felt longer due to the stifling heat. Afterward, the monks at the temple, who were more than kind for lending their sacred place of worship, prepared a wonderful meal and set up an area for both 2020 Census training staff and new hires. It was a nice moment to share together during orientation.
After completing an online training class, a conference call, and a final assessment, I was now actually in the field and I would soon find that my experience as a 2020 Census-Taker would not be what I expected. Being out in the field was no easy task. The Census Bureau wanted us to work quickly and efficiently to complete as many cases as possible, but apparent immediately was the lack of real-time support for Census-Takers/Enumerators like me in the field to assist with that goal. Training covers many scenarios; however, no number of modules or exams can ever replicate the unpredictability of being out in the field. Generally, the job is marketed as interviewing people to obtain population data for future funding purposes, yet the job requires so much more. In order to function as a Census-Taker/Enumerator, it requires excellent customer service skills, patience, and quick thinking.
Every day I would start by checking my census-issued phone to view my cases. I’d organize my cases into geographic clusters to avoid driving back and forth all over town. I would pack all of my necessary supplies and my 2020 Census identification to keep on me at all times. A good part of my shift would be spent knocking on stranger’s doors.
As you approach an address for an interview, Census Takers are instructed to ready their phones. All attempts to interview a resident must be recorded and, if there is no response, Census-Takers will try to ascertain if the place is inhabited. Before leaving, some times a “notice of visit” with a unique case number for the resident to follow up by phone or online may be left behind, but the notices must be left somewhere visible only to the resident. Notices may NOT be left in public on the outside of buildings or inside mailboxes. In addition, for certain addresses, I had to interview a proxy, also known as a neighbor, to ask for more information when the actual resident could not be located.
Ideally, Census-Takers/Enumerators work efficiently to complete as many interviews as possible. In reality, this was easier said than done. As a Census-Taker, I would have no special access to apartment buildings or to the front doors for private homes. I would have to wait for someone to open the door, enter through garage gates, or call the resident building’s rental office number to gain access. Often, intercoms were broken or building managers would not permit Census-Takers on the property. There was little incentive for cooperation. Most of the time, it was up to Census-Takers to convince people to complete an interview. We were given scripts and techniques, but you cannot make people participate, especially if they won’t open their door, are too overwhelmed to answer questions, or, in some cases, they threaten you. In training, Census Takers are instructed to contact their Census Managers or the Census Hotline for assistance after encountering a threat or problem. Unfortunately, the lines were always jammed and Census Managers and Field Supervisors could not provide much assistance with no control over the challenges in the field. In addition, there was a gap in understanding because of the distinct roles and working conditions of the Census-Takers versus Census Management. Census-Takers were out in the field while Census Management was in an office. There were details and particulars lost in translation between the two roles. I’m not sure what I expected. The majority of staff hired to conduct 2020 Census operations were temporary workers. Census Managers, Field Supervisors, Clerks, and Census-Takers all had varying degrees of experience. In hindsight, I believe support was lacking even more for all 2020 Census Workers due to the ever-changing timeline, priorities, and logistical challenges amidst the pandemic.
The internal workings of the system were also confusing. Census-Takers were rewarded for completed interviews with more assignments and the possibility to extend their assignment to another location when Census work concluded in their local area (although the position was always temporary with no possibility of becoming permanent). During the first few weeks, Census-Takers were offered additional bonuses for meeting a threshold of interviews/hour. The bonus calculation method was confusing at best. Not everyone knew how many interviews per hour they would have to complete for the bonus, nor the different types of interviews that would count towards bonus pay. My understanding was that only residents that lived at the case address and completed the Census questionnaire with a Census-Taker would count as completed interviews. All other interviews (new residents to an address after the Census date, quality control re-interviews, and proxy interviews) would not count towards bonus and performance measurement. No credit was given to Census-Takers for refusals, non-response at a residence, or follow-ups with the Census Bureau by a resident online or via phone per their notice. It was confusing.
I remember one group conference call with our 2020 Census Manager on which a distraught Census-Taker requested further guidance on gaining access to apartment buildings and other logistical problems. This particular Census-Taker was working extra hard to qualify for the incentive bonus. Our Census Manager responded by repeating material from the training and emphasized again that we should complete as many cases as possible. I listened, knowing speed does not always affect outcomes, especially with refusals, non-responses, or vacant lots.
During my first few weeks out in the field, nearly every day was in the upper 90’s to over 105 degrees Fahrenheit. I would wear breathable, white long sleeves, despite the heat, to prevent sunburns and bug bites. (Vacant lots or areas with clogged sewage and putrid water always attracted mosquitoes and other pests.) I even bought an umbrella to reduce my chances of a heat stroke. I would walk around for hours trying to conduct interviews in addition to all my other responsibilities. I would update addresses with new units, report fictitious addresses, and confirm empty or vacant lots. Data entry was slow and had to be entered manually on phone keyboards. At times, the systems would lag. Phones would overheat to the point of burning your hand. If it was too hot, the phones would glitch, making it difficult to enter data without burning your fingers. For safety reasons, it was sometimes necessary to sit under some shade and pour water on my head to rest. Sitting in the shade also allowed my Census phone to cool down, too.
One day as I was finishing my shift, it was just too hot and I knew I was in trouble. I felt blindsided because it came out of nowhere. I had felt fine the day before, but now I could not breathe. I was down on the pavement on all fours, ready to pass out.
Somehow, I made it back home. I took a shower right away, hoping it was a bad case of heat exhaustion and would pass. I remember removing myself from the availability schedule for the next day just in case. By the end of the evening, I had a high fever. For the following days, I did not get any better. Eventually, my temperature went down, but I was left with terrible exhaustion and my limbs felt beyond swollen. My arms tingled with pins and needles. My fever would come and go. At this point, I decided to get a mail-in COVID-19 exam. I was in no condition to go to a testing center, had no means of transportation, nor did I want to risk exposing anyone. As sick as I was, I had to figure out the insurance portion because the 2020 Census offered no insurance before 3 months of qualifying work, though assignments did not last long enough for Census Takers/Enumerators to qualify anyway. When my first sample was rejected, I took a second exam. The results took longer than I anticipated, which was stressful. Even though I ultimately tested negative, there is still doubt as to the accuracy of the result because of lingering symptoms. During this time, I kept receiving calls and general e-mails about improving my availability and submitting timesheets from the Census Bureau. I had to call the general office and leave a voicemail to let them know that I was not well. After a few weeks, my manager got into contact with me to ask how I was doing. I was also informed I had been cut from the Census Bureau the previous week. The layoff would become official later that week and we made arrangements so I could return all census-related materials and the census-issued phone. It was jarring, but I knew it was not personal. I had been hired to complete as many interviews as possible. During the hiring process, Census Takers were told outright that they can be dismissed at any time. There is not even a guarantee that work will be available after completing the training. Quite frankly, I felt relieved. I did not want to risk exposing anyone.
I am not sure how to feel about the whole experience, however, I am glad I was able to participate despite the unforeseen challenges and abrupt end. Being out in the field, I witnessed firsthand the devastating impact of the pandemic. For senior citizens, caregivers, and people with disabilities, the sense of loneliness was evident. There is no doubt that these are trying times for so many. I am thankful for the kindness and generosity people showed me and the great conversations with senior citizens – one even showed me a picture of their wedding day and described how they met their spouse. I will remember the monks that prepared and shared their food with census staff and fellow new hires who underwent training. I am thankful that people offered me water out in the field, and some US Postal workers held doors so that I could get in to help our communities receive the funding they need for public services and social programs. If you missed filling out the 2020 Census questionnaire for whatever reason, please make a note for the next census date in 2030. Census data determines the amount of federal funding communities receive for hospitals, libraries, public transportation, schools, etc. Local elections determine the people who decide which initiatives, social programs, and institutions are funded. Overall, civic engagement is not easy nor perfect, however, it is important to be involved. Your contribution matters.
Giving comes in many forms. You can call to check-in with loved ones, volunteer to deliver meals for the elderly, write letters to our troops, host a shelter pet, etc. We all have something to contribute, be it time or money. My role for the 2020 Census was simply to collect data. I will never know the specific individuals that benefit from the data collected, but I do know the time I spent in the field will help distribute federal funding for critical programs and services more equitably for the next 10 years. Still, there are many challenges facing our Latino communities, especially in low-income areas, such as inadequate housing, lack of childcare, and technological poverty. ULAA’s main goal is to raise money to award scholarships to deserving Latino students to help break that cycle. If you would please consider supporting us by donating to the UCLA Latino Alumni’s Endowed Scholarship Fund to promote the advancement of our UCLA Latinx community. Also, consider following ULAA's conversation on our website and social media. There is no cost to join the UCLA Latino Alumni Association (ULAA)! Come join us.
Edited by Nicki Beltranena