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You Can Fill Out The 2020 Census Online. But Are Census Workers Still Meeting IRL?

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For those stuck at home and looking for distractions, here’s one: The 2020 census has arrived. For the first time this year, the once-a-decade survey can be completed online or by phone, in addition to via snail mail.

But that doesn’t mean the federal government’s massive census operations can be insulated from the far-reaching impact of the novel coronavirus. The Census Bureau announced Wednesday that “in support of guidance on what we can all do to help slow the spread of coronavirus, 2020 Census field operations will be suspended for two weeks until April 1st, 2020.”

New York City census workers say the action was overdue. Two census employees anonymously reached out to Gothamist to complain of unsafe working conditions and a lack of information about coronavirus precautions prior to Wednesday’s announcement.

A clerk at one of the city’s Area Census Offices said prior to Wednesday, workers were crowded into a small office without hand sanitizer or wipes and that field workers were coming in and out of the office frequently, including new hires who needed to be fingerprinted. She said she stayed home for two days without pay and risked being fired in order to protect herself from coronavirus because she doesn’t have paid sick leave. Much of the largely temporary workforce hired to organize and conduct the census this year is in the same boat.

While the worker said she is glad she will be able to work from home for two weeks, she and another city census worker said census employees generally operate in a strictly hierarchical environment where information and assignments are handed down on a need-to-know basis and asking questions is discouraged--something they say has been anxiety-producing during the coronavirus outbreak.

“As a census worker, it is impossible to get any official information about what the plan is,” the clerk said. “We are deliberately stonewalled at every turn. There’s nothing. We’re reprimanded if we try to find out.”

The other employee who spoke to Gothamist is a field worker. She said she was told Wednesday that everything has been postponed until further notice. As an hourly worker, she said she wouldn’t be paid for time she doesn’t work. “There’s been no talk of video conferencing or webinars and no general message to employees,” said the worker, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of getting fired.

Michael Cook, chief information officer at the U.S. Census Bureau, told radio station WNPV in Pennsylvania Tuesday morning that the bureau is still planning to send workers to some houses that have not completed the census by late spring. “We have pushed back the timing of that operation but we will continue to do that,” Cook said. “But, again, we think it’s very important [to point out] that if you get the census invitation in your mailbox and respond online or over the phone, you won’t have to come into contact with a census taker.”

Meanwhile, local organizations that have been doing their own outreach to get people to participate in the census are already switching to a digital-only strategy.

Community-based groups in New York City are in the final stretch of their organizing efforts to ensure that the most vulnerable—and historically overlooked--New Yorkers are counted in the census, which determines how Congressional seats and billions of dollars in federal funds are allocated.

“Over the last three weeks, we started to do canvassing on the streets and we were planning to start doing canvassing to people’s doors,” says Antonio Alarcon, census coordinator for the nonprofit Make the Road New York, which primarily works with immigrant communities. “But we didn’t get to that point because now with COVID-19, it’s hard to be out on the streets and interacting with community members.”

Make the Road has already collected 5,000 pledge cards from people promising to fill out the survey, and Alarcon says they will now reach out to those people and others by phone and text in addition to spreading the word about the census via social media.

The Interfaith 2020 Census Count Coalition, formed last summer, is taking a similar approach. The group has gotten faith leaders to include information about the census in their sermons in recent months and is now training those same faith leaders remotely to use digital tools like texting and Facebook Live to reach their congregations.

“We’re looking at ways we can still activate large numbers of people through phone banks, emails, text messaging, and an increased focus on social media and do outreach that way,” said Emily Miles, chief program and policy officer at the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, one of the groups that helped organize the Interfaith 2020 Census Count Coalition.

Still, Miles confirmed there has been some potentially damaging interruption of outreach efforts, such as the closing of public libraries.

“There are technical gaps in low-income communities where people don’t have computer or internet access at home,” Miles noted. “In the weeks previous to this we were encouraging people to go to public libraries to complete the census and public libraries were gearing up to be a key aspect of this.”

In recent census counts, New York has lost funding and Congressional seats, which could be even more important in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Historically, undercounting in low-income communities, communities of color, and immigrant communities in New York has contributed to these outcomes, Miles says.

The billions of dollars in federal funding that’s assigned based on the census “goes to schools, community centers, food assistance programs, the list goes on and on,” Miles says. “These are vital programs our communities rely on everyday.”

This article has been updated and revised to reflect a new announcement from the Census Bureau closing field operations until April 1st.

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