Like many employees, Sophia would often spend time putting on lipstick and doing her hair before heading off to work. But Sophia, who worked for the U.S. Census Bureau, was less concerned about appearing professional than staying safe. “I noticed that if I put on makeup, fewer people would be aggressive towards me during the day,” she said.
Sophia, who normally works as an actress, spent several weeks this spring working as an enumerator in Los Angeles, going door-to-door at houses that had failed to send in census forms. And with or without makeup, she faced some scary moments. After one man threatened to “lay hands” on a colleague of hers, Sophia was asked to try her luck getting the man to answer a few Census questions. When she showed up at his doorstep, the man was visibly angry and kept repeating “it’s not a good time, it’s not a good time.” He did not threaten Sophia but instead stubbornly dared her to “come back with the police and we’ll talk then.” On another occasion, Sophia was interrogated for several minutes by a man she was canvassing before she noticed he was raising his arms in what appeared to be a menacing gesture. “I was standing in the back entrance of an apartment and no one could see me from the street,” she said. “He reached up his arms and I thought he was going to hit me but then he said he was just scratching his back.”
For many, the option to work as a census taker has been a much needed lifeline in an otherwise dismal economy. According to the Census Bureau's Web site, they have now filled the marjotiy of positions available and are no longer hiring. All in all, about 700,000 Americans landed temporary jobs this year working with the Census Bureau. The job itself provides flexibility, a chance to work outside of an office and a salary between $12 and $25 an hour, depending on the cost of living in the area. Yet, working as a census taker is difficult and at times even dangerous work, now more than ever.
We spoke with several current and former census workers who only agreed to talk to us on condition of anonymity because they undertook an “oath of secrecy.” According to Samantha O’Neil, a public affairs specialist at the Census Bureau, this policy “varies by region,” but in much of the country it’s true that census workers can’t talk to the press about their experiences. But many of their stories emphasize the difficulty of this job.
The U.S. government has relied on variations of the census since the late 1700s. Today, data from the census is used to help the government determine how much money communities need for schools, hospitals and more. However, conservatives and anti-government groups have spent much of the past year spreading conspiracy theories about the census. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) famously argued that data compiled by the census could be used to place selected Americans into “internment camps.”
As a result of the conspiracy theories, census workers have faced more animosity this year than in the past.
Brad was employed as a census worker in Rockford, Ill., in 1990 and applied for the job again this year before landing a full-time position elsewhere. “I don’t recall any of the anti-census paranoia going on then like I’ve heard of this year,” he said. “Many people just invited me into their homes and sat with me, and we filled out the form together.”
Janey, a census worker in Newburgh, N.Y. had a different tale to tell.
“Last month, while on an assignment in my hometown, I encountered a woman who really didn't want to answer the door,” Janey said. “Since we must ask age, date of birth, race and if any residents are of Hispanic origin, that put her off the deep end. She began to say that the government does nothing for the middle-class whites who fall through the cracks, and when her daughter needed help, she couldn't get it because she was the wrong color.” Janey said the woman then issued a torrent of racial epithets.
Whether they like it or not, these temporary census workers have become a face for the federal government and, like the government itself, they must deal with a fair amount of critics and extremists.
One census worker was found hanged from a tree in Manchester, Ky., with the word “fed” written on his chest. At first authorities believed it might have been murder, but it was later determined to be a suicide. Another worker in Yuba City, Calif., went to canvas at someone’s door and was held at gunpoint by the resident inside. Then there’s the ongoing legal battle over Russell Hass, who attempted to canvas the home of a police officer in Honolulu only to end up being arrested for trespassing. This, despite the fact that census workers are technically allowed to enter onto your property.
Even when these workers aren’t being threatened or arrested, they may face trying circumstances. Census workers are not just responsible for going door to door, they also must go alley to alley and shelter to shelter to count the homeless population. On top of that, there have been allegations recently that some census workers have yet to be paid.
Sophia told us that the big problem she confronted as a census worker this year is that many of the superiors she had were only there for a short time and seemed clueless about certain business matters. “When you’re hired, they’ll say the job will last for six to eight weeks, but then you learn it’ll be maybe two weeks,” she said. Sometimes it can be even less than that.
According to a recent piece in The New York Post, several workers have reportedly been fired after a few days or even a few hours, only to be rehired again at a later date. As the Post explains, “Each month Census gives Labor a figure on the number of workers it has hired. That figure goes into the closely followed monthly employment report Labor provides. Labor doesn't check the Census hiring figure or whether the jobs are actually new or recycled. It considers a new job to have been created if someone is hired to work at least one hour a month.” So far though, these stories seem few and far between.
For all of the struggles that came with the job, Sophia looks back on her time as census employee favorably. Not only did it provide her some much needed income, but it also gave her a rare opportunity to explore her city. “I enjoyed discovering my neighborhood in a different way and seeing how different people live,” she said.
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