US census faces challenges as it aims to hire up to 500,000

ORLANDO, Florida (AP) — The United States (US) 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 coronavirus 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 US 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.

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.

US Census Bureau staff talks to attendees at the Yuma Community Job & Education Fair inside the Yuma Civic Center about possible job opportunities with the federal agency, in Yuma, Arizona. PHOTO: AP

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 neighbourhoods 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 mobilisation. 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 per cent 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 per cent of its recruiting goal as of February 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.