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The Census Bureau Is Looking For A Few (500,000) Good Temps


Job numbers out this week show U.S. unemployment is still near a 50-year low. That might make it harder for the federal government to hire workers to carry out the 2020 census. The Census Bureau says it needs around a half million temporary workers. That wouldn't include BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music. Some lawmakers and census advocates worry the bureau won't be able to fill all those jobs in time. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: How do you find enough applicants for close to a half million census jobs?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

WANG: For the Census Bureau, it means running lots of ads emphasizing extra income and flexible schedules.

LUIS SERRANO: So what we doing here is trying to log in to her account.

WANG: And holding lots of job fairs, including in Brooklyn, N.Y., where recruiting assistants like Luis Serrano have been helping people fill out online applications.

MONICA HOUSTON: And how long do these jobs last?

SERRANO: Well, this job should last until about August - so through the summertime.

WANG: That's a good fit for Monica Houston of Queens, who says she has a seasonal job right now.

HOUSTON: This summer, I'll have the whole summer off. I was thinking to find something to do where I can make my own hours, have some extra income coming in.

TIM OLSON: What we're finding - because the job market is so tight - most people that are applying are either retirees, students or they already have a job. These are part-time jobs.

WANG: Tim Olson oversees field operations for the 2020 census, including recruiting for enumerators - basically door knockers - plus other positions needed mainly for following up with people in households who don't fill out a census form on their own.

OLSON: The recruiting goal is 2.667 million to be exact.

WANG: By March?

OLSON: March 3.

WANG: Recruiting, though, has not been as easy as it was for the last census, which took place after the Great Recession, when plenty of people were out looking for jobs. This time, the Census Bureau has had to bump up pay to more competitive rates in the majority of counties around the country. The bureau has not done the bulk of its hiring yet. But as of Thursday, it says its pipeline of applicants is more than 80% there. Olson says exactly how many workers it will need depends on what most households do after the Census Bureau starts sending out letters in March.

OLSON: When you get that invitation, please respond. It's going to affect our future for the next decade.

WANG: It's going to affect how many workers you need, right?

OLSON: Well, that, too (laughter). That, too.

OLSON: The more households self respond, the fewer enumerators the government needs to send out. The NAACP and other groups have filed federal lawsuits against the Census Bureau, alleging it's planning to send out too few enumerators, which could hurt the accuracy of the census information gathered from communities of color. It's a concern some lawmakers have raised during congressional hearings, including U.S. Representative Brenda Lawrence, a Democrat from Michigan.


BRENDA LAWRENCE: Mr. Morial, do you believe that the Census Bureau is doing all it can to recruit and to hire enumerators?

WANG: Last month, Lawrence questioned the National Urban League's president and CEO, Marc Morial, who chaired the Census Bureau's advisory committee for the 2010 count.


MARC MORIAL: It's time to ring the alarm bell on the enumerator program.

WANG: Morial says the bureau should consider working with private staffing agencies and give more regular updates about census recruiting and hiring.

MORIAL: We do not want to come May and then find out that they don't have sufficient people because then there will be no recourse in terms of securing a full count.

WANG: Have you applied online yet?

MARIANO DIXON JR: No. I'm planning to do it right here, person to person.

WANG: Mariano Dixon Jr. of Manhattan recently stopped by the census job fair in Brooklyn. Dixon says he's worried the job will come with special challenges, including having to convince households with unauthorized immigrants to participate.

DIXON JR: They be afraid to open the door for you. So I hope I work in a neighborhood that not a lot of, you know, people without papers, you know?

WANG: Because you're worried it might be a hard job if...


WANG: ...People don't have papers.

DIXON JR: Yes, of course. That what I mean.

WANG: That could be a hard job for Dixon and the millions of others recruited so far if the Census Bureau can hire them in time. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.
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