Jo Padilla easily figured on putting in 40 hours a week as a census worker in Chicago, where some neighborhoods were barely responding to the count.
But as the deadline drew near and response rates remained low, Padilla’s hours were cut in half and others got no work at all.
“This is really strange because we know that there are these massive disparities in who’s getting counted,” Padilla said. “There are a lot of people … across the city that are available to work these hours … but they’re not getting them.”
Despite assurances from U.S. Census Bureau officials that there would be a final push to reach people this month, the latest data shows the Chicago region employed around 3,000 fewer people the week of Sept. 6-12 compared with the previous week. The move raises more questions about the reliability and completeness of a count that will determine Illinois’ representation in Congress and the state’s and city’s share of billions of dollars in federal aid over the next 10 years.
The Chicago field office would not comment on the cutback of workers in the final weeks of the 2020 census, but an official in Washington, D.C., said one reason might be that the Chicago area is actually faring very well in the census, with much of its population already counted, contrary to what every local official has been saying.
“We’re not letting anybody go,” said Tim Olson, associate director for field operations for the Census Bureau. “Some people, if they get one hour a day of work, it’s not enough so they quit.”
Olson said Cook County is about 90% counted when you combine responses from households and visits by census workers to homes that didn’t respond. But some advocates, as well as workers themselves, question how reliable that overall rate is.
While census workers in the field knock on doors and encourage people to return their forms, they can also depend on a neighbor, a janitor, a real estate agent or “other knowledgeable person” to gather information after they’ve visited a home at least three times. The bureau’s training manual tells workers to contact up to three such “proxy respondents.”
A survey in July by the Pew Research Center found that 40% of those who had not yet responded would not be willing to talk to a census worker who came to the door.
One Chicago census worker told the Tribune, for example, that he got some of his information from a door attendant at a River North condo building. An organizer with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights said she tells people it’s important to fill out their forms because the Census Bureau will get that information one way or another, it just may not be as accurate.
Officials in Chicago and Illinois have focused on the percentage of people returning their forms, considered the most reliable information. In some areas of Chicago, that response rate is as low as 26%, primarily in communities of color that have been traditionally shortchanged of resources.
Padilla thought these last weeks of the count would be busy with visiting homes in some of those areas.
Padilla was supposed to begin work as a census enumerator in the spring, conducting what the bureau calls “nonresponsive follow-up,” basically visiting households that had yet to complete the questionnaire. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Padilla said he did not enter the field until late July, covering an area that stretched from Albany Park to Uptown.
By the end of August, the number of households assigned to Padilla and a team of around 20 people dropped dramatically, to the point where only seven of them were frequently receiving cases. In recent weeks, Padilla has been assigned only 20 hours of work a week, instead of the 40 requested.
The Chicago census worker, who asked to remain anonymous, said their workload was also cut in half, from 40 to 20 hours a week, after Labor Day.
Around the same time, a manager in the Chicago office instructed supervisors to begin laying off workers who did not have cases “to get a head start on terminating these people,” according to The Associated Press, which said it listened to the conference call.
AP reported that it was unclear whether the incident violated a federal judge’s order prohibiting the Census Bureau from winding down field operations while she considers a request to extend the head count by a month. Olson said the agency was investigating and was “instructing field personnel of their continuing obligation to comply with court orders.”
Ellisa Johnson, deputy regional director for the Census Bureau in Chicago, told the Tribune earlier this month that her office was “trying to pull out all the stops” in the final weeks of the count. But workers contacted by the newspaper said they found no evidence of a big last-minute push.
“It’s hard to see how that’s happened,” said the Chicago census worker who didn’t want to be named.
Padilla has not witnessed any layoffs but said a number of workers were recently instructed to turn in the cellphones they use in the field. Response rates are relatively high in the region where Padilla works, especially around Ravenswood, where rates are above 70%, and Padilla believes that may be the reason for the low workload in recent weeks.
Padilla and other census workers have offered to travel to neighborhoods with low response rates. Instead, Padilla was asked to travel to Detroit, where response rates remain around 50%. When Padilla was unable to make the Detroit trip, the agency asked about going to Georgia.
“It gets to be such an incurable mess,” Padilla said. “We have a different supervisor right now because our supervisor was sent to Georgia, but we have massive problems here in the city as well with counting that, just logistically, (it) would make sense to keep us here.”
A Far North Side census worker, who also asked to remain anonymous, was more sympathetic to the challenges faced by the agency. The official deadline was the end of July, but that was initially pushed back to Oct. 31 because of the pandemic. Then the Trump administration abruptly moved the deadline up to Sept. 30, despite warnings from inside the Census Bureau.
“I can’t even imagine what people at the upper levels of the Census Bureau have had thrown at them from the current administration, in terms of changing rules, in terms of changing processes, in terms of changing ways they want to do things,” the worker said. “I think that everyone is doing their best and I really hope that that’s enough.”
But Olson insisted the count has been going well in Illinois, where he said there are around 130,000 addresses left to be counted and 9,000 enumerators still in the field. He said he expects the workforce to keep shrinking “as you grind down to the end and there’s very little work.”
But Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker have been focusing on much lower numbers representing the number of households that have actually submitted their forms. The state’s self-response rate stands just above 70%, slightly higher than the national average, while the city’s rate remains just under 60%, with some neighborhoods still reporting rates around 30%.
The governor has been making stops across the state, urging people to return the forms and warning about the consequences if they do not.
“Just a 1% undercount could result in the state losing over $195 million in federal funds each year at a time when we need our full funding the most,” he said earlier this month during a Downstate stop. “Today, when Illinoisans pay our federal taxes, we are one of only 10 states that get back less than we pay.”
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