Census faces challenges as it aims to hire up to 500,000

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The U.S. Census Bureau said it has reached its goal of recruiting more than 2.6 million applicants for the once-a-decade head count that launched for most of America this week — but it has been a bumpy road getting there and the new corona virus will likely make the path even more difficult.

The nation’s abundance of jobs has complicated the effort, and some rural areas — particularly in New England, Appalachia and some Rocky Mountain states — are falling behind recruitment goals as the agency works to hire up to a half-million temporary workers before May. Falling short could threaten the count in some parts of the country, which in turn could lead to underrepresentation in Congress and less federal funding.

An analysis by The Associated Press shows how low unemployment has affected the bureau’s ability to attract workers, with urban counties, especially large ones, more likely to hit recruitment goals than rural areas. The bureau has yet to account for how hiring could be affected by novel coronavirus concerns. The virus may dampen workers’ enthusiasm for going door to door, but it could also create a new application pool of workers who have been laid off.

On Friday, Census Bureau officials told U.S. lawmakers that concerns about the virus hadn’t yet caused a drop in staffing levels, according to a statement from the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

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The Census Bureau hasn’t ruled out extending the count past the end of July, when it was scheduled to end, and bureau officials will make a decision after reviewing response rates. The bureau also is shifting training for temporary census-takers online and providing safety equipment for workers, according to the House committee.

The 2020 census started this week with the online questionnaire going live and notices being sent out for people to start answering the questions. In response to coronavirus concerns, the Census Bureau said this week, “It has never been easier to respond on your own, whether online, over the phone or by mail — all without having to meet a census taker.”

Some advocates leading census outreach efforts on Friday worried that the coronavirus would lead some census takers to quit their jobs, said Jeri Green, 2020 census senior adviser for the National Urban League.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

While the Census Bureau has reached its recruiting goal nationally, hiring has varied widely from place to place. States with populations concentrated in large metro areas — Georgia, Illinois, Maryland and Nevada — have overrecruited. Mostly rural states with high numbers of older residents — Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire and West Virginia — are well below recruitment goals.

If the bureau can’t find enough applicants in those areas, “it may have difficulty hiring enough staff to complete upcoming operations, leading to delays, increased costs and eroded data quality,” J. Christopher Mihm of the Government Accountability Office said during a congressional hearing last month.

“Recruitment and hiring success in one area may provide little advantage to an area where efforts are lagging,” Mihm said. “The census, while a national effort, is implemented locally in communities and neighborhoods across the country.”

Most of the workers will be hired to knock on the doors of households whose residents haven’t responded by May to the census either online, by telephone or through the mail in what is the federal government’s largest peacetime mobilization. The Census Bureau hopes to hire people from the areas they will be working in because they know their communities best.

In Vermont, part of the problem is the number of jobs. Its unemployment rate was just 2.4% at the end of 2019.

“Vermont is a rural, small state, and I know we have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation,” said state librarian Jason Broughton, who is chairing a committee on encouraging census participation. “That plays a huge factor. A lot of people already are working two or three jobs, so everybody is already working.”

The extremes in recruiting can be found in Teton County, Wyoming — home of the Jackson Hole ski area — and Clayton County, Georgia, in metro Atlanta, home of the world’s busiest airport. In Teton County, the Census Bureau reached below 17% of its recruiting goal as of Feb. 24. In Clayton County, home to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the bureau had recruited more than double its goal.

Census Bureau officials insist there’s no reason to be worried. As of the end of February, there were more than 22,500 temporary workers on the payroll, the bureau reported last week.

There are at least three recruits for every position in every part of the country, and in some parts, there are four or five applicants, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham told lawmakers last month.

“We are not behind,” Dillingham said.

The census helps determine the allocation of $1.5 trillion in federal spending and how many congressional seats each state gets. For the first time, the bureau is encouraging most people to fill out their forms online.

Finding such a large, temporary workforce in the current labor market had been a formidable challenge, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department oversees the Census Bureau, testified before a Senate committee last week. But he said the bureau had reached out to college students, previous census-takers and private companies like Walmart that have a large number of temporary workers.

“I feel quite comfortable that we will accomplish what we need to,” Ross said.

After recruiting efforts hit a plateau last December, the Census Bureau increased its hourly wages by around $1.50 in almost three-quarters of U.S. counties. The hourly wages now range from $14 to almost $30 an hour, depending on the city, with workers in California, Chicago and the Northeast earning the most.

U.S. Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Deb Haaland of New Mexico told Census Bureau officials last month that residents had applied for jobs but never heard back. The two Democrats worried that recruiting and hiring problems would lead to undercounting of hard-to-count communities in their districts, which both have large numbers of minority groups.

The Census Bureau says the bulk of the hiring wouldn’t start until this month.

In New Mexico, the recruiting shortfall seems most drastic in Hispanic communities and Indian country, Haaland said.

“Those I would say largely are rural communities where the unemployment rate is higher, so I almost feel like that would be a great place to find people,” she said.

Dillingham, the bureau’s director, promised to ensure those communities are properly staffed.

“It is very important that we meet the needs of particular states and particular communities within those states,” he said.

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Kastanis reported from Los Angeles.

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