With less than five months until the 2020 census is fully underway, the federal government is already seeing signs of potential hurdles to staffing up in time for the national head count.
The low unemployment rate and delays in processing background checks have hindered hiring this year for early rounds of census jobs, including positions at local census offices and those involved with setting up outreach partnerships with local organizations.
Next year, the bureau plans to train and hire close to a half million temporary workers to knock on doors and interview people in households who don't fill out a census form themselves by late spring. The bureau is launching a national campaign at a news conference in Phoenix on Tuesday to recruit 2.7 million job applicants.
These census workers, known as enumerators, are expected to play a key role in completing the constitutionally mandated head count of every person living in the U.S. That's because the bureau expects fewer than seven in 10 household members to self-respond to the census online, by mail or over the phone, according to the results of a national survey the bureau conducted last year.
The challenge of a tight labor market
Census results guide how an estimated $880 billion a year in federal tax dollars are distributed for schools, Medicare and other public services in local communities. The numbers also determine the number of congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets for the next decade.
Selling the chance to "help shape your community's future," the Census Bureau's new ads for 2020 census jobs are also emphasizing "good pay" and "flexible hours" to try to attract people who are already working and may be looking for a side gig next spring and summer.
Hourly rates for enumerators can range from $13.50 to $30 depending on the position's location.
But in some parts of the country, the Government Accountability Office has found the pay rate for jobs at local census offices hasn't been high enough to attract qualified applicants. The tight labor market has forced the bureau to raise rates this year in some areas to more competitive levels.
Delays in background checks
Delays in processing background checks for applicants who are offered a job have also thrown a wrench into the bureau's early hiring plans.
The bureau is currently more than three months behind in bringing all 1,501 partnership specialists, who coordinate local census outreach, fully on board by the bureau's original target date of June 30. As of Oct. 15, 1,475 partnership specialists are working, according to Michael Cook, the bureau's spokesperson.
"Our challenge is not getting people to apply," Albert Fontenot, the Census Bureau's top official for the 2020 count, explained during a public meeting in February. "It's just getting them through the system."
Since then, the bureau increased its staff for formally vetting applicants' history to get through the backlog.
Tim Olson, the bureau's associate director for field operations, said he doesn't expect the background check process to take as long for the half-million enumerators expected to be hired next year. Those positions, Olson added, only need a fingerprint check by the FBI.
"If they're clean, they can be hired immediately," Olson said. "That process with anybody who does not have any negative hit on their record, that happens at about two to three hours."
Background check controversies
The bureau has run into other issues with its background check process in the past.
The Office of the Inspector General of the Commerce Department, which oversees the bureau, concluded in a 2018 report — titled "The Bureau's Background Check Office Is Not Fully Prepared for the 2020 Census" — that "applicants who may be unqualified or unfit may nevertheless pass a background check and then be sent to the homes of U.S. residents to collect personal information for the Bureau."
In 2016, the bureau entered into a $15 million settlement of a federal class-action lawsuit filed by black and Latinx workers who applied for 2010 census jobs. The bureau had screened for applicants who had ever been arrested, including those who were never convicted of a crime, and asked them to provide paperwork to explain their record within 30 days. That requirement, the plaintiffs' attorneys argued, disproportionately shut out African American and Latinx applicants from census jobs.
As part of the settlement, the bureau agreed to review its process for criminal background checks for the 2020 census.
Asked if any of the recent backlogs are related to the changes made for the settlement, Cook, the bureau's spokesperson, did not provide a direct response.
"This decade, we have worked with legal experts, law enforcement officials, and advocacy leaders to make sure our hiring process for the 2020 Census" protects "the public's safety and trust," as well as gives "every applicant who is fit to serve a fair opportunity to do so," Cook said in a written statement that mirrored a bureau flyer about background checks.
In May, the bureau became embroiled in another controversy when a FOX 46 news report revealed that a local census office in Charlotte, N.C., had hired a registered child sex offender. As a result of that case, Cook said that "nothing has changed" with the bureau's current background check process.
"We've put measures in place to ensure that all staff are following the established, rigorous background check procedures we have in place," Cook added.
This year's delays in processing background checks for partnership specialists have some former Census Bureau officials worried.
Arnold Jackson, who served as the chief operating officer for the 2010 census and as a consultant on the 2020 census to the Commerce Department, said he's concerned about how the backlog may affect areas where partnership specialists are tasked to conduct outreach to help ensure all groups are counted.
Calling the program a "secret weapon," Jackson added that it "puts the individuals who are hired face to face with key influence leaders in various communities, many of which are non-majority communities."
If there are any delays in hiring the half-million enumerators the bureau needs next spring and summer, Jackson said the impact on the 2020 census could be "devastating."
Just like staffing for a political campaign or a military surge, getting census workers ready for the count has a lot to do with timing.
"They're only in play for a limited amount of time — sometimes six months, sometimes a year," Jackson said. "If you miss that window, the cost of the recovery goes through the roof."
It could also have a lasting cost on the census results. Some households may not be included in the official population count unless they receive a personal visit by a census worker. According to Census Bureau research on self-response rates to last year's test run of the 2020 census, those households are likely to be disproportionately from communities of color.